Last updated: March 3, 2012 4:12 am

Sickening bravery

Due at a literary festival in Limerick to give a talk, I had 30 minutes to recover from an illness or to get myself out of it

I grew up in a house where the word hero was not used sparingly: “Oh be a hero and let me go halfsies on your chocolate finger.” “Oh be a hero and stop tap dancing – there are people trying to sleep.” Heroes were everywhere if you only used your eyes.

“Not to sit your exams, when you are well prepared, requires a great deal of moral courage,” my mother said to me only yesterday.

I was thinking about heroism today because at noon I realised I was not very well. Due at a literary festival in Limerick at four to give a talk, I had 30 minutes to recover or to get myself out of it. I had a slight temperature. I felt a bit sick. I was a little dizzy when I tried to stand. Yet I hate to let people down. I don’t like to change plans. I don’t like to change my mind. I don’t even really like to cancel the newspapers when we go away. It feels so attention seeking. “I’ll drive you to the airport if you like,” my husband said. My heart sank.

A ball of shame, I composed a letter extricating myself. I apologised profusely and my pièce de resistance was to offer to pay for the hotel and the missed flight. A few hundred pounds to spend the day in bed – it still felt like a bargain. I stood up and sat down again and took a few tremulous steps. I dissolved a Solpadeine in some ginger tea. Call yourself a hero, I said to myself, and then I sent the email.

The flood of remorse was quite overwhelming. “If it was a good friend’s wedding, you would have gone,” I remonstrated with myself. “If it were the Oscars and you were up for an award, you would go. If you were a single mum bringing up five kids with no money, the fee alone might have been enough incentive to ... ” I pictured myself turning the handle of a mangle in a pinny fraught with marigolds, a baby on my back. Hmm.

An email in reply arrived. “You are a low-grade person of small worth to cancel,” I thought it would say, but it did not. It simply said my original email had been unable to reach the recipient. It said my cancellation, in effect, had been cancelled, my reprieve had been reprieved. Oh!

I thought of the last time I attended a work event when I was very unwell. My nausea (a hangover from food poisoning) was so severe that afternoon that I had to ask the taxi driver if he’d mind if I laid down on the floor as we drove. London looks dazzling from that view point, as it happens.

That event – an awards ceremony – began with an elaborate lunch and I was unable to touch a morsel of food and could not even risk any water. I sat very, very still and said nothing to no one. Yet later that day I met someone who was to become one of my best friends; the only person I know who shares my love of cheese puns. The air between us suddenly was ripe with them. How did that happen?

“You know my favourite feminist of all time is Germaine Gruyère.” “My favourite Chet Baker recording must be Roquefort the Silver Lining.” “What did the cheese say into the mirror? Hello me ...” etc etc.

“Last time you were ill but honoured your commitment, it made a big difference to your life,” I told myself sternly, so I dragged myself into some pale grey clothes and headed for Heathrow.

. . .

At the airport, quite a famous actor was at the departure gate sporting forest-green corduroy. There was a great deal of fluttering from the cabin crew and the more mature female passengers. I took a seat, instead, next to a transsexual who told me that she had just been to see her gender doctor in Brighton. She looked a bit sad. The airport staff had laughed at her when she went through security and it had hurt her feelings. They made jokes at her expense because her hormone patch set off the alarm. I thought she was going to cry.

“They’re just jealous,” I said. “Bloody people.”

“They won’t intimidate me,” she said.

“That’s the spirit.” She told me about her decision to have the operation, which she had wanted since boyhood, her ongoing treatment, her motivation, her earlier life as a married man.

I had a strong desire to pay her an elaborate compliment but held myself back, worrying I might get something wrong. Post-surgery, she seemed awfully vulnerable, almost like a child, despite the 6ft 2in (in heels) frame.

We sat there quietly. Why there was so much fellow feeling between us I do not know, but I enjoyed it.

And then: “Are you OK?” she said. “No offence, but your face is ever so green.”

susie.boyt@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/boyt

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