When my friend Genevieve Fox published her book ‘Milkshakes and Morphine, a Memoir of Love and Loss’, I was bursting with pride and couldn’t wait to get started on it. A tiny part of me was daunted, though, realising that a thorough inspection of a friend’s suffering was always going to be a challenging read.
I met Genevieve when we moved to Primrose Hill way back in the Noughties. Amongst the innumerable enchantments of our new neighbourhood was the house next door, divided into flats and inhabited by, from the ground up, a super-cool photographer, his model wife and their little girl, all so bohemian, sweet and kind; a legendary local councillor who eventually sold her flat to Luella Bartley and retired to the countryside; and across the top three floors, Richard and Genevieve and their two sons, who happened to be the same ages as our own two boys. Happy bouts of hanging out together ensued, and we were sad when the Fox McClures moved to Tufnell Park to buy and renovate a house. I visited mid-renovation amidst the dust and banging and it was an exciting time for them.
Then the cancer came; I don’t remember how I knew, but evidently I did; and I bumped into Genevieve at the Primrose Hill doctors, where she waited until her lovely dignified older son, Reuben, went in to see the doctor before dropping her ‘everything’s fine’ act and telling me with alarm that she was shortly to have a PEG fitted and was dreading it. What did I think and how would she get through it, she wanted to know. I’m sure I comforted her as inadequately as anyone else would have done, but what I saw in the waiting room was exactly what was shown in the book – the full force of the maternal urge to protect one’s offspring, along with the visceral dread and fear that such harsh medical invasion brings with it – the PEG, it transpires from Genevieve’s memoir, was all she had expected it to be, and not in a good way, of course.
I got as far as page 37 before I had to stop for a good old cry at the dreadful things my clever, funny, puckish, complex pal had had to face, above all in this new and appalling role of mother whose survival is in question. She had lost both of her parents young; were her own children now going to lose their mother? In fact, a lot of the book is inescapably a study in how to face up to the most dreadful challenges as a vulnerable, suffering person, how to quell one’s own fears, how to endure the pain, how to protect the children above all else when one is the patient, laid low, desperately ill.
But the book is about many other things besides. Love and friendship, hope, dancing, a glass of Bolly, food, Primrose Hill. And this is day-to-day Primrose Hill, as lived by its inhabitants. Genevieve runs into L’Absinthe’s JC (‘his potatoes dauphinoises and tarte tatin are two of the seven wonders of the edible world’) and considers whether it’s ok to interrupt his conversation to ask him to cater for her wake. And anyone who has ever phoned the local doctor’s surgery will delight at Genevieve’s fabulously recognisable version of the receptionist’s voice when answering the phone.
And as if the experience of cancer isn’t enough, Genevieve dovetails in a romp through her childhood which is a revelation – and definitely a book – in itself. I had had only the vaguest impression of Genevieve’s pre-Primrose Hill life, with hints of New York, boarding school and nuns, before I read this extraordinary tale; I was agog at what Genevieve, her sister and brother endured and experienced and I have the sense that Genevieve herself is pretty astonished by it too.
That quote that does the rounds on Facebook from time to time: be kind to everyone who crosses your path, however hard it is, because you don’t know what battles any given stranger is facing that day. Well, turns out it can be true of friends too, not just strangers. We don’t necessarily know what battles even people we count as friends are facing. Genevieve lays her battles bare, a bloodied warrior, seeking and finding a peace she can accept.
© 2018 Joanna Reeves, all rights reserved.