“What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are happy in:
Where can we live but days?”

Philip Larkin

As a young schoolboy I looked on enviously at a bohemian generation that had adopted ‘Paint it Black’ and ‘Satisfaction’ as its rebellious anthems. Since then I have frequently found comfort in knowing that Keith Richards, a marginally older figurehead of that rather reckless‘60s generation and one who has evidently sampled considerably more Class A induced respite than most, not only continues miraculously in the land of the living, but is able to skip onto any one of the world’s stadia at the drop of a generous tour rider. So long as he, alongside Messrs. Jagger and Wood, are still frolicking to order, I calculated that on average I was still in with more than an existential chance. My time was a long way off as long as they, with their combined ages sailing past the 200+ year mark, continued to scale a stage unassisted.

As it turned out, my grasp of the law of averages was to be found wanting. At the end of 2018, I was diagnosed with an apparently inoperable and incurable oesophageal tumour.

Some perspectives just get overtaken with the quickened passages of time as whilst the lead guitarist of the Stones apparently continued in rude health, St Peter had seemingly bumped me up the queue.

Since that bombshell, much of my time has been dominated by lengthy and uncomfortable treatments involving chemotherapy and radiotherapy, interspersed with invasive gastroscopy, biopsies, CT, MRI and radioactive PET scans. All of the above ushered in with enough blood tests to keep Count Dracula in after-work happy hours for an eternity.

Whereas cancer works cunningly from the inside out, my treatment was designed to work contingently from the outside in, and it was this random intravenous therapy that produced many unwanted side effects. The innocuous bags of what the late Christopher Hitchins described as “venom” during his own treatment, were dripped into my veins over countless weeks and took their toll on every cell that did not have the presence of mind to scoot whenever a canula penetrated my forearm. Nausea, tiredness, weight loss, even the disappearance of hair could be borne, but the temporary forfeiture of one’s ability to taste and smell was an unexpectedly bleak setback. For the months that followed early chemotherapy, all red wine tasted of rust, all whites carried the fragrance of a damp cassock left in the back of a leaking vestry and the odd Provençal rosé had the alluring bouquet of Toilet Duck. Solids fared little better with only the fierce heat of an ill-chosen take-away curry managing to elicit some kind of sensory response. Unfortunately chemotherapy has as much to do with wellbeing as all-in wrestling has to do with embroidery.

Add to this the discomfort of trying to smuggle food through the donut shaped tumour wrapped tightly around my gullet and I felt all potential plans for a more expansive gustatory life had been summarily curtailed. Every mouthful seemed like a re-enactment of John Hurt’s spasm as the tail of the Alien coiled resolutely around his throat.

However unwelcome, that early diagnosis was delivered in a charming manner by a charming consultant oncologist whose day must be spent, unlike the grim reaper, delivering frequent news of mortality with a chirpy cadence and a disarming smile.

He dispelled the military aphorisms that I was about to go into battle, fight this awful disease or wage war upon the bohemian cells that had colonised areas of my body. Instead he patiently explained the job modern medical science was about to undertake. His outlook then and now has remained judiciously reassuring.

The only chilling note during the consultancy was from his younger assistant who – busily filling out the form I was to sign, which offered little hope of an immediate cure – punctuated proceedings with the phrase ‘hopefully maintaining a good quality of life’. Until then I had never even considered my life had any enviable ‘quality’ to maintain. So accustomed was I to life’s various setbacks, random changes of direction and near calamities, that the term quality now seemed unusually flattering. Finally I thought, a glimpse of optimism slipped into the midst of bewilderment.

What his phrase actually signified, I suddenly felt ill advised to pursue. Looking back, whilst calmly pondering life’s eternal verities, I realised I had been quietly booked into the departure lounge.

At that moment I calmly passed my life across the desk and into my consultant’s waiting hands where it has remained, under his superintendence, for more than 36 months.