December 13, 2013 6:48 pm

Cakes, cancer and compassion

‘Perhaps the best thing I’ve done all year is a cake that resembled a dressing table’

I was en route to the supermarket with my smallest daughter, who was on her skateboard. I was jogging along next to the kerb, in the fashion of a sprightly grandma, so that if she went off course I could field her from the traffic. She was reciting her Christmas list, which was 98 per cent sugar and live animals. I had a cup of coffee in my hand, 10 per cent too strong. We went past a bakery that flooded the street with the scent of cinnamon. Some carols blared out of a shop. This is living, I thought. I was happy. It has been a while.

We sped on. The mahogany-coloured roast ducks in the window of a Chinese restaurant, lined up in a row like elderly chorus girls, had an audience of two excited-looking dogs gazing up at them. I once told my children I would only get them a dog if something went seriously wrong in their lives.

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Susie Boyt

“What like?” they asked.

“I don’t know, you know, like if one of you had a really, really bad leg or something.” An hour later I heard a theatrical scream from above. I rushed upstairs. “Mum, Mum I’ve got a feeling Mary’s leg has come off, maybe . . . ”

Continuing our journey I reviewed the major triumph of the past week, which had been making a birthday cake that resembled a kidney-shaped dressing table, complete with blue and white checked skirt. I sewed the skirt and gathered it by feeding a small safety pin threaded with elastic all the way through the hem. I arranged miniature doll’s hairbrushes and tiny scent bottles on its surface, a hinged mirror, a miniature jug containing a rose. I think it’s the best thing I’ve done all month, perhaps all year.

The day of the cake I went to see a concert by singer Lorna Luft, who was in brilliant form. Speaking of her recent brush with cancer, she said she had asked the doctor if her voice would be affected and the doctor said, “Yes and no. Medically it won’t be but everything you sing will sound new because of what you’ve been through.” It was true. Even the cabaret artist’s habitual, “I am so glad to be here” was rinsed with fresh meaning.

Nearing the shops, on two legs and four wheels, I suddenly thought, “In 10 years’ time, if I am very ill or someone in my house is, will I wish I had spent more time minding about idiotic things? About too much treatment – by which I mean the overestimation by others of one’s nerves and frailty? About too little – that is, the sort that underestimates one’s experience and intelligence? It does seem unlikely. Is it better to stick up for yourself or is it more powerful to roll over and let everything unpleasant fall away as quickly as possible, without a fight?” These are the questions, all right.

I searched my personal brain library for some song lyrics to help with all this but for once nothing sprang to mind. Involuntarily I began to whistle my current favourite song: “I didn’t know what time it was, till I met you.”

I thought of my two favourite bits of Shakespeare, which are both about compassion. The first is the lines in King Lear when Cordelia says she would have insisted that her enemy’s dog, “though he had bit me”, should have kept beside her fire in such a bad storm. And then (and I know that their relationship was by no means faultless), I find it unfailingly moving when Othello says of Desdemona, “She loved me for the dangers I had passed/ And I loved her that she did pity them.” This seems to catch at a belief that all strong human bonds need to have, at their heart, an awareness and a sort of heroic championing, on both sides, of what the other has suffered in life.

And, yes, I know he killed her.

I thought of my two favourite bits from the Bible: the disturbing almost masochistic lines from St Luke’s Gospel where it instructs us to love our enemies and tells us that to those who steal our coats, we should also give our cloaks; and the almost too-soothing letter of St Paul to the Philippians: “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

And with these words vaguely on my lips, into the warm supermarket we went, popping the skateboard, on its side, into the body of the trolley.

susie.boyt@ft.com, @SusieBoyt

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