It was autumn 2004; I was attending the Northern Centre for Cancer Treatment, at that time located at the General Hospital in the West end of Newcastle. It was probably my third or fourth visit and by this time I was getting to know the routine pretty well.
Importantly, find somewhere to park the car. Take deep breaths of fresh air while making my way across the tarmac before entering the labyrinth of corridors that led to the chemo clinic. Dread the thought of finding a suitable vein and getting hooked up to the drugs, but look forward to the warm smiles of the nurses and their calm reassurance. Have mixed feelings too about the chat among patients at the clinic – most of those attending were on the same drugs trial as me – the wildly inappropriately named “tAnGo” trial, which was using a new cocktail of drugs to combat breast cancer. It was sometimes inspiring to listen to the stories of endurance and treatment, but sometimes hugely depressing, as we were all there because we had a life threatening illness and our hopes were pinned on the effectiveness of the chemotherapy.
Then into the clinic itself – a warm, sunny room, with a faint smell of disinfectant and an atmosphere of restrained hysteria overlaid with medical efficiency; lots of brave smiles, piles of magazines and cups of tea.
It was here that I met Julia. She was an old hand, having already had a lot of treatment. It was my friend, Helen, who pointed her out to me: “Look, over there. I think that’s Julia Darling.”
I was keen to find out. I knew a little of Julia’s work; I’d read The Taxi Driver’s Daughter and loved the fact that it was so local, that I walked past the shoe tree every time I went through Heaton Park and that I knew the lines of taxis that waited outside the central station. And strangely, when I had done some freelance work at Newcastle University I had been given occasional use of her old office, and had used her computer and keyboard, so I knew of her illness and a little of the work she’d done there.
So I went over to the cubicle where she was propped up with pillows on the bed and said hi. Asked her if she was, in fact, Julia, and said how much I admired her work. She was very sweet , and smiled, and we had a brief conversation about her writing and my using her old desk, before a nurse came to close the curtains around her cubicle to give some privacy for a medical consultation.
I only saw her a couple of times after that, as I fairly soon moved on from chemo to radiotherapy. I was lucky; my treatment has been successful. I was very sad when I heard the following spring that Julia had died. By then I had read Sudden Collapses in Public Places, which to me wonderfully describes the dislocating experience of being seriously ill and having cancer treatment. I was so sorry to think that she was no longer with us.
I find it hard to believe it is ten years now since Julia died, and more than ten since I had that chance encounter. For me, the time has flown despite my efforts to slow life down and revel in every moment. It’s been a while now since I read any of her poetry, but in writing this I looked out my copy of Sudden Collapses in Public Places as a way of prompting my memory. I was touched to see that Julia had written an inscription in it for me – I have no recollection of her doing that. Ten years on, those poems still impress and move me.
I am so pleased to have the privilege of revisiting her work, and writing about fresh responses to her theatre work in my blog about Rendezvous which I will be seeing tomorrow evening. I can’t wait!