A few weeks after my interview I heard that I had been accepted onto the BA (hons) Graphic Design course at Liverpool Poly. I was ecstatic and applied for a grant. It was refused on account of me not being resident in the country for the previous three years. Downhearted I attended an open day at the college and there once again I saw Mr Tall and Lanky – now known as Paul – and told him his efforts had been in vain as my grant application had been refused. Once more I heard him snort – ‘see your solicitor – write to your MP – don’t give up!’ I did just that and got my grant.
The summer was spent with friends and family, sketching and doing the pre-course work we had been given. I spent several weeks house-sitting for friends (Marion and Juan, in whose house I’d had a studio in Zambia before they moved back to the UK) in Folkestone, where they had also invited my parents to stay awhile. My sons came to visit too on separate occasions and with each of them I took a day trip to Boulogne. There were a few old friends in the area and I also made new ones, not least Mad Matt, an Aussie who was doing the usual back packing stuff in the UK. I was free for the first time since I was 14 and I was reliving my lost teenage years by running riot. I had such a good time in spite of my colostomy and the cancer seemed a million miles away. (Marion actually said that she thought the recurrence of my cancer had been a positive thing as it prompted me to walk away from an oppressive marriage!)
Come the autumn it was back to reality and down to work. I took the course very seriously and found it quite hard, especial the art history and the thought of writing essays filled me with dread (I’d even failed my O Level English!) Field trips were a problem too – youth hostels or cheap hotels with no en-suite bathrooms are not conducive to easy living for ostomates, but I coped. Another big problem was the wind. Farting is a wonderful way to ruin a lecture! I developed coping strategies like coughing or knocking my books to the floor. I’m naturally dyspraxic so that came in quite handy as a cover.
In May of 1989 (during my first academic year) I attended a Well Woman Clinic and they discovered I had carcinoma in situ of the cervix and so I went into my local hospital to have a cone biopsy and a labial cyst removed. I came around from the anaesthetic only to discover they had been unable to perform the operation as the uterus had slipped into the cavity where my colon once was. It was decided just to monitor the cells with six-monthly smears. The cyst wasn’t removed as they ran out of time!
There were other mature students in my year and I became particularly friendly with Carol, a few years younger who had lived in South Africa, so we had that magnificent continent in common as well as our art and marital status. We sat back to back in our little workspaces and over that first year, Paul, who was one of our tutors on Mondays, would frequently come and chat to us. I discovered he drove through my hometown every day on his way to and from work and he offered to give me a lift. I do not believe he had any ulterior motive, but I declined, preferring to drive my old banger to my nearest station and taking the train to and from Liverpool.
Before long it became apparent that all was not well in Paul’s household, culminating in his wife leaving him and moving into a house she had been renovating (with her business partner) less than 100 yards from the marital home – with her boyfriend! By now I had learned this was Paul’s second marriage and only three of the six children were his, the other three were step-children – all grown up and away from home, except his wife’s middle child – a daughter aged 23 and her mother left her in the marital home with Paul! He was devastated by his wife’s infidelity, being terribly naïve and having no idea that this had been brewing. One evening he invited me out for a drink and I was snowed under with college work – and had been determined never to get involved with another man, so declined. He said, ‘I though you were my friend!’ I went for the drink – and as they say, ‘the rest is history!’
Telling Paul about my colostomy had been a major issue, but he was fine about it and as it turned out he had issues of his own which we worked our way around and discovered a whole new life with each other. I couldn’t believe my luck at finding such a man, though he was about to go through another acrimonious divorce and as before, his property and life savings were to be decimated, the apparent injustice of it all leading him into bouts of depression and mood swings.
My colostomy was causing me all sorts of problems; never settling down to a regular pattern and I was constantly worried about the wind, especially during lectures, so the stoma nurses at Christies suggested I try colonic irrigation, which is an enema into the stoma and after the bowel has evacuated you can use just a stoma cap instead of a colostomy pouch or plug. I would have still been quite happy with the plugs, but wind was constantly blowing them out, so with the okay from my surgeon I decided to give irrigation a whirl. He had lived in America for 20 years and said it was the preferred method there for various reasons – and if he had a colostomy it would be the method he would choose. That was good enough for me!
An appointment was made for the stoma nurses to give me a trial run of colonic irrigation. What they didn’t tell me it was the first time for them too! How did I discover this? Well, on the ward at Christies they led me into the bathroom – which, although it is very big and ideal for giving someone a bath and had all the lifting equipment – it doesn’t actually have a toilet in it! Looking at each other they even suggested using a bucket until the practicality actually dawned on them. They are two of the nicest people and I really did feel quite sorry for the dilemma they were in. The only answer was to do it in the communal loo next door, so they filled up the irrigation bag with water from one of the sinks and we all squeezed ourselves into a cubicle, together with a drip stand to hold the water bag. I started to take my panties down, but they said that wouldn’t be necessary as all the faeces are evacuated from the stoma via a long plastic bag into the toilet bowl. Well, that’s the theory!
The pain was excruciating and the amount of excrement unbelievable. We were all shocked and I began to feel faint. To put it bluntly there was shit everywhere and my panties had to be washed. I thought I had gone pale, but they described me as going green! When finally things appeared to have calmed down they applied a colostomy pouch, as they were unsure if a cap would be suitable in light of their immediate experience. I was completely drained – quite literally, so they took me to a bed on the ward and went and brought me some disposable knickers. Then they found Paul and brought us cups of tea. I think it took me a couple of hours to recover and although they gave me the equipment to take home, it had been such a disaster that they didn’t think I would ever try it again. They were wrong and although I do still have problems sometimes – another fine mess has quite a literal meaning, but for me it is still the best method by far, unfortunately it isn’t suitable for everyone.
After the aborted cone biopsy I had started experiencing a heavy ache in my lower abdomen and I reported this to the registrar when I next attended my local hospital for a smear. He said he would discuss it with my consultant and he may want to see me himself. It might be that the uterus was pressing on the bladder and I may need a hysterectomy, in which case I would be placed on the waiting list and it might be six months before admission….