RIP, Christina

It’s tough to blog this week without writing about my late colleague Christina Earle. So I won’t even try.

When emotions are less raw, it will be possible to look back through a happier lens. Right now, grief colours everything.  Needless to stress, it is so much worse for her family, including her husband Oli, than it is for colleagues and friends.

Aged 31, Christina died suddenly and unexpectedly last weekend.

There’s no point trying to make sense of that.

She was one of the best journalists I’ve worked with in over 20 years of writing for mainstream media. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what the Press Gazette has to say

Working for a 7-day newspaper, Christina often needed copy in a hurry. Sometimes this was a challenge to provide, as on the day that, unbeknown to her, I was being wheeled away for surgery myself. But she was always considerate. Thank you, Christina, for persuading me to turn my mobile off on my wedding day.

She made a fine campaigning journalist for The Sun, and she achieved so much. Every problem had a solution. Well, it did when she was on the case. Colleague Lynsey Hope put this tribute together. 

It seems self-indulgent to mope when Christina was such a sunny and capable person with an infectious smile. 

But how is it possible to do anything else? Columnist Virginia Ironside pointed out that you don’t ‘work through’ grief. It works its way through you.

Grief is the occasion for acknowledging the great value of what you’ve experienced. In his book The Middle Passage, psychotherapist James Hollis explains that, because it has been experienced, it cannot be wholly lost. The experience is still there, says Hollis. It is retained in the bones and the memory, to serve and guide the life to come.

I’m hoping so, anyway.

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What Nobody Told Me about Having Children

Even before I had children, I considered myself clued up. I’d looked after plenty of kids as a family doctor, though my education actually began in my teen years. As a fifteen-year old, I used to baby-sit a feisty brood of five living round the corner from me. Four of the children moved so fast that I could barely tell them apart, let alone stop them wrecking their home. The baby, less mobile, needed constant nappy changes, which was a challenge as he was in a ‘frog plaster’ for developmental dysplasia of the hip

The scales fell from my eyes, however, when my own kids arrived. Here’s what I learned from having my three sons.

1 Everyone has an opinion on raising children, especially those who never had any. The fewer children someone has, the more insistently they share their wisdom. Experienced parents rarely dish out advice because they know that not all kids are the same.

2 Yep, all children are different. Before you ask:  yes, even identical twins. My own twin boys had different personalities from day one. After all, why should they be exactly alike? The environment begins in the womb, and there are always differences in the closeness to the mother’s heartbeat, to her dominant hand, even in the amount of blood flow from the placenta, to name just a few factors.

alarm clock

3 Babies need a lot less sleep than their parents. They don’t have to go to work. They can just loll about all day looking cute and innocent, and save their strength for another fun night ahead. Had I fully appreciated this, I might have stayed on maternity leave longer rather than dragging my befuddled brain (plus a breast pump) to work.

4 The best toys engage the child’s ingenuity, not the toy designer’s.  That’s why empty boxes, old saucepans, wrapping paper, and key rings make great playthings. By the way, if you’re still looking for your keys, try checking inside your boots, behind the radiator, in the toilet, and out through the cat-flap. Or keep a spare set somewhere.

key ring

5 The longer you take to prepare a meal, the less likely your child is to eat it. Strangely, letting a child make his own sandwich does not put him off wolfing it down, even if it contains the most outlandish food combo and looks nothing like a sandwich.

6 Shopping and mayhem go hand in hand. Before supermarkets provided trolleys for more than one child, I’d have to push one trolley and pull another one. This was the moment when I’d be accosted by a patient who wanted to chat over the baked goods about her test results, or even show me her painful knee. On the plus side, my kids rarely had tantrums while out shopping. Instead, they amused themselves by pulling toothbrushes off the shelves and stuffing them down the front of their dungarees.

twins at the soft drinks dispenser

7 Children have an infinite capacity for embarrassing their parents. At a neighbour’s house one morning, I was offered coffee, only for one of my sons to pipe up, “Mummy likes gin and tonic.”  Another memorable event was a job interview, the kind where you’re invited to bring your entire family (GP interviews can be like that). One of my little lads promptly removed his shoes and socks, gleefully shouting “Sock, sock!” The snag was that, at the time, he pronounced every S as an F.

8 Being a doctor helps you cope with children’s illnesses, but doesn’t make you superhuman. One of the low points was the Christmas when both twins, aged eight weeks, had bronchiolitis. Their older brother didn’t get much attention that year.  Another low was a convulsion which landed one of the boys in hospital at the age of eighteen months. The little lad was fine in the end, but my husband drove into a bollard on our way to A & E.  

9 The biggest lesson? You have to put your child first, before yourself, before anyone else. But that’s perfectly OK, because, until your own baby come along, you have no idea how intensely you can love a little person.

FreeImages.com/Helmut Gevert

If you’d like to help a new parent cope when their child is seriously ill, please take a look at Lucy Air Ambulance for Children’s Mum Matters campaign. This great initiative comes just in time for Mother’s Day.

You can find out more about Lucy Air Ambulance for Children right here

Mum Matters logo

Four Hours in the Eye Surgery Day Unit

On looking back, the signs had been there for years. First, Nadia had trouble at night from the glare. Then reading got harder, especially the day she picked up an Egyptian newspaper in Paddington. Arabic, with its tiny script and its proliferation of vital dots above and below the letters, is the least appropriate language for someone with poor vision.

She wonders why she’d got cataracts by the age of 55. Probably to do with a stupid game they used to play at the beach in Alexandria.  She, Zeinab, Chou-Chou, and of course her sister Simone all dared one another to look straight into the sun for as long as they could. Nadia still has the memory of the after-burn. How was she to know, until Simone told her, that her school friends all cheated by shutting their eyes when she wasn’t looking at them?

“The Nile has cataracts too,” says Chou-Chou. She is still stupid despite being middle-aged now.

“They’re not the same thing,” Nadia replies loftily, even though she is unsure of the difference.

Nobody gets a bed on this day surgery unit. They get an armchair, but only if there’s one free at the appointed time. There isn’t. Along with three other patients, Nadia sits in the corridor. Waiting in corridors is normal in the NHS. It was never like this in Egypt, if you could afford bakshish.

An Iranian nurse and two Irish nurses seem to run the place. Each of them asks Nadia if she is diabetic.

“I’m not diabetic.”

In a nearby office, a doctor sits with the door open. Nadia can hear her complain about the computer system. Doctors always do this.

Once Nadia is installed in her allocated chair, an Irish nurse comes in to put drops into her left eye. “Are you diabetic?”

“No.”

After two lots of eye drops, her vision is so blurred that she can no longer decipher the stream of bile about immigrants, shameless young people, and disgraced celebrities in the newspaper someone discarded.

A young doctor comes to explain the op, reeling off a long list of potential complications. “There’s a one in 1,000 chance of losing all the sight in that eye.”

Nadia recalls a handsome man at Montazah who wore tiny briefs and an eyepatch. He liked to say he’d lost an eye in a duel, though, as her sister told her later, it was really a cataract operation gone wrong. She signs the consent form, sure that things have moved on and that it won’t happen to her.

The surgery is under local while her surgeon hums snatches of an aria and asks about her family.

“There’s nobody left.” Still, Nadia cradles the hope that improved vision will help her find her lost sister.

Everything is bright with a watery blue light. A machine buzzes, and the lens fragments are washed out before a new lens is put into place. She feels nothing.

Soon he says, “All done,” and peels the plastic drape off.

“You can sit up now,” says someone else.

So many voices she doesn’t know, and her head swims when she sits up.

Once back on the ward, a nurse offers her tea and asks again if she is diabetic.

Nadia checks in the mirror that she always keeps in her handbag. There she is, a plastic shield over one eye, with two long strips of tape holding it down.

The nurse returns with tea and instructions: eye drops for the next four weeks, eye shield on at night for a week, sunglasses for a few days, and no hair-washing for five days.

Of course Nadia will wear sunglasses! If her hair is going to be filthy, she doesn’t want anyone recognizing her.

The next day, she removes the eye shield for the first time. Everything is so bright. She can see every leaf on the trees, every speck of dust on the windowsill, every wrinkle on her face. They don’t make mirrors like they used to, that’s for sure.

***

Nadia is a character from my next novel, which is set in Alexandria and London.

If you’d like to know more about cataracts, try this link from Moorfields Eye Hospital.

You may also enjoy Six Lessons from the Eye Clinic.

#TBT Being Eligible: the Marriage Market back in the Old Days

Many readers have enjoyed my mother’s writing, especially about the bygone world of cosmopolitan Alexandria. Today I bring you another extract. As ever, Jacqueline uses humour to write about serious topics. This time, it’s about  finding a husband. 

Pastroudis

In backward areas like Europe and the United States, where they don’t understand the first thing about women – or the Middle East or anything else – when a girl finishes school or college, she looks around for a job, starts agitating for equal pay with men, and then proceeds to make a thorough nuisance of herself.

But in the East, where men are men, and not mice, and they know how to treat women, men don’t stand for this sort of nonsense. As a matter of fact, they don’t often stand for a woman at all. It is she who stands up for the man, if she knows what’s good for her. The only man who would make a woman walk in front of him would be walking in a minefield.

Every Oriental, even an idiot, knows instinctively what a woman should and should not do, and she should not do anything but wait on him. He knows that Western women are too free, and that freedom for women is very bad indeed for men. The only career a woman should have is looking after her husband. Sometimes, if she’s lucky, he may call in up to three more women to help her do this, so that she won’t get tired.

Instead of going down on bended knee and being grateful that we lived in the East, where they are so considerate towards women, my friends and I had visions of launching ourselves into the world on our own feet and having careers.

It was the fault of the British. With our heads pumped full of the English Girls’ College’s nonsense about women getting jobs, we Alexandrian girls had overlooked the fact that we had a special mission in life. One that was the most hazardous, most exciting of all callings. It was known as Being Eligible, and what you had to do was sit back with some nice bit of embroidery and catch a husband.

Petit point

After a varying amount of needlework, the good obedient girls who did as their parents bade them were rewarded by finding husbands who provided large houses, children, and security.  Some of these girls were very happy, especially if during a man shortage they had caught someone else’s husband.

Others were whisked out of school before the end of term, when they had barely started on their embroidery, to marry someone they hadn’t so much as set eyes on. Perhaps it was just as well. Anyway, they had the whole of their lives to get a good look at him. Sometimes, the bridegroom was a little older than the bride – twenty-odd years or more. Sometimes, instead of twice her age, he was twice her size, and sometimes, unfortunately, he was both.

You may also enjoy: How my Mother Wrote Her First Book

The Worst Books of All Time

It’s the time of year when many bloggers list their favourite books of the past 12 months. On the other hand, some of them name the titles they liked least. Here I must follow suit because, when I look back at my shelves, some books stand out as the very worst of any year. So, in the spirit of utter meanness, I offer you this diverse list of five awful reads. One or two are classics, or may be your favourites, for which I can only apologize. Horses for courses, and all that.

Lecture Notes on Pathology by AD Thomson and RE Cotton

What they say: Of value to undergraduate medical students studying for their final examination and to postgraduate students preparing for higher qualifications.

What I say: The print is tiny, there is no plot whatsoever, and the book reads like a telephone directory. Having committed almost all of the 1,100 pages to memory (I didn’t bother with the index), I can still recite chunks of it by heart decades later, although nobody wants to hear them. But I suppose I shouldn’t bear a grudge, especially as the cover survived many late-night revision sessions, along with the inevitable spilt coffee.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon 

What they say: Quirky novel set in the East Midlands during the heatwave of 1976. Ten-year olds Grace and Tilly set out to find out what happened to their neighbour Mrs Creasy, who has disappeared. ‘An utter delight, etc.’

What I say: An utter delight, etc – if you’re a reader, that is. Terrible book if you are an author. Every paragraph is a reminder that you can’t actually write novels for toffee, or at least nothing like as well as the peerless Joanna Cannon. This book commits the crime of being too damn good.

Slow Horses by Mick Herron  

What they say: Banished to Slough House from the ranks of achievers at Regent’s Park for various crimes of drugs and drunkenness, lechery and failure, politics and betrayal, this misfit crew of highly trained joes don’t run ops any more; they push paper.

But not one of them joined the Intelligence Service to be a ‘slow horse’.

A boy is kidnapped and held hostage. His beheading is scheduled for live broadcast on the net.

And whatever the instructions of the Service, the slow horses aren’t going to just sit quiet and watch …

‘Funny, stylish, satirical, gripping, etc’

What I say: Decapitations apart, this tale is not suitable for bedtime reading. It has more pace than a Merseyside Derby, and just as many characters. OK, so it’s set in London and has nothing to do with football (apart from that disembodied head), but a moment’s inattention and you’ve missed some vital action.  Full attention is needed to fully savour this unusual spy novel. 

Please Don’t Eat the Daisies by Jean Kerr

What they say: Now out of print, this is a witty collection of pieces by US playwright Jean Kerr about work and family life, as she tries to write at home while praying that her four irrepressible sons will behave for once.

What I say: I thoroughly enjoyed this book while growing up, and read it several times. However, I made the error of dipping into it again after recent gall bladder surgery. It is the worst book anyone could choose after an abdominal operation. If you don’t bust your stitches, you’ll feel as if you have.

Dictionnaire Larousse

What they say: 60,000 mots, définitions et exemples. Très utile.

What I say: I haven’t brought myself to use this dictionary again since the day one of my classmates, also aged 11, borrowed it then returned it to me after adding, in Magic Marker, no less, some choice four-letter words that the publishers of le Larousse had not thought to include in a children’s dictionary.  And he didn’t even put them into the correct places in the alphabet (I checked). I eventually bought a new copy, as you can see.

So, who’s in your bad books?

Whether you agree with my choices or not, happy reading in 2018. With over 130 million books in print and a slew of new titles on the way, there’s something to suit everyone. Except maybe POTUS.

 

 

 

The 12 Allergies of Christmas

Think you’ve got enough to worry about in the run-up to Christmas? Spare a thought for people with allergies, for whom the festive season is fraught with danger. But, with a little consideration, you could prevent an allergic reaction, and even a trip to Accident & Emergency.

1 Real Christmas trees can contain moulds, a health hazard for those allergic to them, while the sap can trigger skin reactions. The mould content is highest when the tree is cut some time in advance and kept in a moist atmosphere. After buying the tree, it helps to store it in a dry place like a garage, and then shake it before bringing it indoors. Note that, once the tree is inside, mould spores can grow within two weeks. For those with symptoms, fake trees may be the answer.

2 Mistletoe allergy is uncommon, though it can cause skin reactions in some people. The main danger comes from the kiss. Proteins can linger in saliva for several hours, so a snog can deliver a sizeable dose of nuts or whatever else the person last ate. Those with food allergies may find their luck running out, just when they thought it had come in.

FreeImages.com/Stephanie Berhaeuser

3 Problems with latex are on the rise. About 4% of the general population is allergic to latex (the natural type from rubber), while nearly 10% of healthcare workers are. The incidence is growing because gloves are more often used for procedures which were done with bare hands in the bad old days. What has this to do with Christmas? Balloons and most condoms contain latex, and both may feature at the seasonal office party. 

4 Alcoholic drinks can lead to allergic reactions. There are often nuts in speciality beers, and there’s obviously dairy in Irish cream liqueurs. There’s even almond oil in Bombay Sapphire gin, as the Anaphylaxis Campaign reminded me. Besides, alcohol can lower your guard and make you blasé about risk.  And large amounts of alcohol tend to worsen allergic reactions.  

5 Presents that smell nice, like bath oil, soaps, hand creams, and reed diffusers, may contain almond oil or other essential oils. These cause no trouble for most people, but they can trigger nasty reactions in those with allergies to the ingredients.

6 Festive candles are, again, mostly harmless, unless you’re careless enough to start a fire. But, for those with allergies, the soya present in some posh candles can be an issue. Candles may also contain pine, a potential problem for anyone allergic to pine resin.

7 The poinsettia plant is related to euphorbia (spurge). It’s not often an allergen, but it can be, especially for those with latex allergy. Symptoms include rash, wheezing, and shortness of breath. It’s wise not to have a poinsettia if you’re latex allergic.

FreeImages.com/D Fleiderer

8 Chocolate can contain dried fruits and nuts (which you may not spot if it’s in the form of a paste). It usually also contains soya lecithin. If you have a food allergy, check the label before indulging – if, that is, the label is anywhere to be seen. This can be a problem when chocolate treats are unwrapped and passed around on a plate at Christmas.

9 Sulphites are food preservatives commonly used in sausages, as well as in many pickled foods, dressings, and soft drinks. Some people react to sulphites with asthma symptoms or an urticarial rash. In most cases, the reaction is a sensitivity rather than an allergy.  But occasionally there is a true allergy, with a severe reaction called anaphylaxis.

10 Fancy turkey stuffing can contain a multitude of allergens, including pecans and hazelnuts. One of the most widespread ingredients is celery. Although allergy to celery seems fairly rare in the UK, when it does occur, the reaction can be severe and may lead to anaphylactic shock.- see more about anaphylaxis.

11 The traditional Christmas pudding is full of nuts, an obvious problem to those with an allergy to them. But it is possible to source tasty nut-free versions in most large shops.

12 Christmas cake, as a rule, contains nuts. It’s easy enough to study the ingredients when out shopping and choose a product that doesn’t contain a particular nut or fruit (though it’s impossible to do without almonds if you want stollen or any other cake with a marzipan layer).  If you have a nut allergy, visiting friends and family can still be risky, though. It’s not always enough to avoid a food that’s a trigger. There may be cross-contamination, which can be critical with severe allergy.

This list of Yuletide allergies is obviously far from inclusive, so please take care and have a happy, healthy Christmas.

I’ll be back in the New Year. Meanwhile, for more information about allergies, including anaphylaxis, visit the Anaphylaxis Campaign.

You may also enjoy The dreaded Christmas newsletter.

Meeting in the Park

Here’s one of my mother’s pieces of flash fiction, first published by the American International Women’s Club in Geneva. I hope you enjoy it as much as others have.

Day after day, he came to the park and sat on the bench beside her, sometimes a little too close, but she pretended not to notice. After a while, she’d get up and move away. She wasn’t about to get involved, not after Ambrose. It was too painful.

She loved being out of doors, and she was lucky to live across the street from the park, where she could sit under a tree, in dappled shade, reading or writing another one of her short stories.

Her thoughts were adrift in the old Alexandria of her youth, so she wouldn’t hear him approach, but, when she turned her head, he’d be there. A little scruffy, a little thin, but proud nonetheless.

“FreeImages.com/Harry M

He sat very still, gazing straight ahead, though he often fixed her with his eyes, which is what got to her in the end.

“Look here,” she said to him one perfect spring day when the crocuses were out and she could stand it no longer. “You need a good meal.”

He sneezed.

“You’re not well.” She hesitated. “You can stay with me, if you wish.” She rose and stood looking at him for a moment, then gathered him in her arms. “You purr even louder than Ambrose.”

Does anyone else here write flash fiction? I’d love to hear from you.

Meanwhile, these posts may raise a smile:

How My Mother Wrote Her First Book

No Mother is Perfect

#TBT; Dating, 1940s Style