'THE ESSAY' - weekdays, 10.45 - 11 pm. Radio 3. Its pleasures reconcile me to the day being over, to going to bed. Sometimes, I admit, I fall asleep before the end - but not on Monday January 18th, 2016. Fiona Talkington launched a week of 'essays' by Radio 3 presenters revealing their secret passion for particular composers.
Our radios are permanently tuned to Radio 3, and my bedroom radio is on beside me throughout every night. The familiar, civilised voices of its presenters have soothed me through periods of insomnia provoked by cancer drugs and the anxiety that inevitably accompanies the condition. And I shall always be grateful to my son for presenting me with a small radio to take into hospital: during three stays of twenty-one days each I was nursed 'in solitary confinement' (because of my almost non-existent immune system) and so was able to keep the radio on day and night without disturbing anyone. The Radio 3 presenters, and the music they introduced, became part of the complicated polyphony of hospital noises and my own fluctuating emotions. Theirs was a humanly rich and stable world ...
It wasn't surprising, therefore, that when Fiona Talkington spoke about her own experience of being diagnosed with a treated for cancer, I certainly didn't fall asleep. Hers had been one of the voices from 'out there' - a world not governed by needles and tubes and the avant-garde tunes of bleeping machines. And now I discovered it had also been her world and that she, too, had found the hardest part breaking the news of her diagnosis to her children.
The music her essay focused on was Cantaloube's 'Songs of the Auvergne', a CD of which a thoughtful friend had given her to take into hospital. It's music I also love, but the essay deepened my appreciation of its spirit and the uniquely haunting quality of its orchestral accompaniment.
But I'm a person of words as well as music - a writer - and it was hearing Fiona Talkington pronounce the word 'neutropenia' that broke open a previously sealed form of awareness. There are certain words that become part of the cancer patient's everyday vocabulary - a new language we learn quickly but which we prefer to leave at the hospital door. The words do an endless, ghoulish tap-dance in our heads and only we can hear it. The vocabulary of 'conditions' and drugs.
Some of the words sound so beautiful - 'neutropenia', 'hypercalcemia', 'uremia', 'myeloma' (the bone-marrow cancer I suffer from): they should be the names of Greek goddesses - or nymphs, at least! And some of them sound like joke words - especially the names of some of the drugs: 'Bortezomib', 'Panobinostat'. Or obscure angels, maybe, from Milton's Paradise Lost ... One would never guess their dreaded 'side effects'. And who could possibly guess the dark shadow that is the reality of the lyrical 'neutropenia' - the immune system so low that the body cannot fight even the slightest infection and can slide into the terrifying 'neutropenic sepsis', which Talkington herself developed.
She also spoke about filling those long hospital mornings with music (yes: the seemingly endless succession of days starting with blood tests at 5.30am every morning). I could have played CDs on my ancient Walkman, but apart from the annoyance of being attached to yet another piece of equipment, I discovered I wanted human voices between the music, the chance to hear new music and to learn things about music already familiar.
I can't quite explain why simply hearing the words 'neutropenia' and 'neutropenic sepsis' spoken in this unexpected context had such an effect on me. I suppose it was suddenly a bridge thrown between two usually discreet worlds and the knowledge that this dark language, where words are loaded with implications that others can barely guess at, could also be known by some of those who deliver the riches that help me deal with my condition and on-going treatment. A comfort. Or like being in a foreign country whose language you don't know and suddenly finding someone who, at least, speaks French!
Thank you Radio 3. Thank you, Fiona Talkington. Keep well.
Heather Reyes is author of An Everywhere: a little book about reading (Oxygen Books, 2014, £8.99 ISBN 978-0992636490-1) which records the place of reading in her life and particularly how it helped her through her first round of cancer treatment.
Books, like love, can make one little room 'an everywhere' ...
You can hear Fiona Talkington's BBC Radio 3 Essay here