Guest post by Andrew Fusek Peters
I am lying on a small slope, a heathland in miniature carved from the litter of old mine workings. High summer, with the heather in bloom and the grasses revealing small, roosting secrets. By day, the walkers and tourists wander, peeking in and out of roofless engine houses chasing lives and their echo long gone. Darters and damselflies buzz round with clockwork precision and graylings almost merge into the rocky substrata that suits them so well. But now, in this evening soft-light, the cars have departed and this patch of nearby wild almost belongs to me. I say almost, because I have made a new gang of friends who don’t say much, except to sway on their slender grass masts as they cling to their metronome swing of a night-time perch.
The common blue, named as it was found on the commons, is a beauty, a fabergé of a butterfly, a patterning that is opposite in every way to the green monotony of its grassy kingdom.
My guts gripe again. I almost gasp with the pain. This bloody IBS is the worst it’s ever been and more pills from the doctor seem to be doing sod all. I shift and move my mind away from the stabbing sensation. In my lens – the butterfly is haloed by a white flare of burnt out sun. My camera can only go so far and I need the sun to do its job, to fall and as she falls, to soften, let her moody glare give into one golden wink. It’s all I need and my prayer to the gods is heard – for here is sun, a majestic marble sloping on the edge of the far world, butterfly lit up in a posed portrait and delicate grass caught in the last delighted rays. All is awash with colour, raw treasure in my memory card.
Memory is a funny thing. I still think of those disabled days in my back garden with a fondness. Time has taken my debility and given it a swaddling band of ‘this too shall pass’. I did not know it then. What I knew was a desperate shortness of breath, the stairs an assault course and walks where I had to stop to catch the young man I really was no longer. I managed one squash match where I leant against the wall between each rally wondering when my lungs would work again as some macho git off court took the piss and told me to man up. The doctor took one look and looked alarmed. She moved from anaemia and IBS in one single step to the Cancer fast track. I had never seen a general practioner (GP) act so fast, nor seen the National Health Service swing into action like a wrecking ball to diagnose the root, the tree, the tumour like a tennis ball that bounced my fears into the net: game, set and crash.
It was an Indian summer and like the sunshine, I was lingering on in the three-week gap between my diagnosis and the op to take the damn thing out. My GP was both caring and concerned and gave me pills for when the pain had grand slammed me to a halt. The garden was a sanctuary. I sat for hours studying the butterflies, working out if I could catch their flight. It was distraction and that is always for the good. Who knew that Commas had a comma, etched in white on their underwing? Or that the dull valerian we think of as a weed might just for the first time in 20 years, attract the hummingbird hawkmoth. It helps to have a lovely wife who shouts about this miracle and that I have worked hard at my photography and will grab at such a moment with all my heart and skill. Funny, looking back, as I was practising a waiting game on every level.
I walk into the shop, trying not to burst into tears. James and his wife are doing the stocktake. I tell them my diagnosis. They are both kind and concerned, but busy with work. I leave after a while and as I am walking up the street, James runs out of the shop and catches up with me. His wife is going to take over for the afternoon and we can hang out. I am beyond moved. We head to the national trust café, talk it all over and later, walk the hills. Later again, or rather earlier, I rise in the dark and drive to his house. We are kitted up to climb the Long Mynd long before dawn. He is patient as my progress is pathetically slow, but the promise of dawn eggs me on. We reach the golf course where there are ridiculously good views and even better, an inverted mist curling like a cat’s tongue below us. A wild pony hoves into view just as the dawn light wrings out the clouds and dyes clouds to a vibrant red intensity. We grab shot after shot, and once we’ve squeezed the best out of dawn, there is bacon eggs and laughter back down in town. Cancer, and my coming operation have vanished, for this while, from the view.
The setting of the sun
I can’t believe I’m out and about. Somewhere along the way, I lost half my colon and gained a huge respect for the expertise that has saved my life. I feel fragile and as ever, the Long Mynd is my local cure. A certain competition asks for a ‘classic’ landscape view. I am not sure Shropshire fits. The views are too varied and as I drive down the steep back road off this great and ancient humpbacked Upland, I feel like I am tipping over from one life into the next. To be driving, walking, chasing the light is a miracle and when the sun is cut half-ways by horizon and squeezed like a blood orange, I am thirsty for beauty.
They got it all out. Nodes are zero, the stage of my cancer has been awarded the mark of B. I feel both flattened and elated. Apparently, I might not even need chemo. That is until they ring me 3 days later to say the lab has produced one extra result. My cancer is of a type both rare and aggressive, Six months of further treatment are recommended. How am I? Numb as snow. It does not help that after the first five days of pills I feel positively athletic. The sixth day is an Armageddon of nausea, mojo stuffed back in the djinn’s bottle. Sickness pills help and adjustments are made, though almost any Netflix series sets me off sobbing with a sadness that veers towards depression. But the moon at Manstone Rock is my shy companion, peeking out from behind that ancient quartzite tor. I am for a moment forgetful.
A few days later and deep into the night, my alarm pulls me out of bed. Who needs to drive to the hills, when my patio becomes a platform to witness a vision that eclipses my illness and puts my pain into a humble and glorified perspective. The camera cannot lie, as the earth passes between the sun and the full moon. All my blues, and the waves of blue light are discarded and what is left is the rich red silk on the ancients of old. How can I not be glad to see this?
The fragile flowers of hope
There is sunshine again. I’ve finished my first cycle and despite the nausea, I know that I must grab what round-the-corner wild I can. A smatter of snow lines the little lane out of my village. Here is the year’s first promise, hope’s harbinger, the snowdrop I kneel down to honour, such flowering against all cold common sense. And if the snowdrop, why not me? I feel a sudden and absurd sense of optimism. Yes. I will put my heart to be rocked in nature’s hands. Spring is coming.