You could not make it up. Already I was writing the headline. 'Cancer victim in midst of chemotherapy served eviction notice two weeks before Christmas.'
Yesterday afternoon (Dec 6th) I got a phone call from our letting agency saying that the owner of our flat (whom we have never met) was going to sell it. We have been renting this flat privately for four years. The caller was formally serving us the statutory two months' notice and we would need to vacate the premises, our home, by 15th February.
Also yesterday, in the morning I drove to Tescos, bought lots of fruit juice and tins of pineapple chunks, refuelled the car and drove into town to meet my pal Liz for coffee and a cheese scone. As I was early I walked slowly to the health food shop and purchased coriander and cumin seeds, chilli powder, and organic vegetable stock. I plan ahead for future cookings. It was grand to be out in the world again and to feel normal. When I got home I had a tuna sandwich for lunch and a glass of orange juice.
I was aware that the following day I would start the heavy dose of eight steroids a day in preparation for the final chemotherapy session the day after that and that within three days I would be on the pineapple chunks diet again, probably for over a week. My phone had been on silent in the café and I saw I had one missed call, from the letting agency. I waited until after two o'clock before phoning back, to let them have their lunch.
The woman in the Agency came straight to the point. They had just been told that the owner was selling the flat and we would have to leave in two months' time.
I cannot describe the feeling of disbelief and despair and defeat that thudded into my chest like a cannonball and I said nothing at all, just sitting with the phone against my ear. Eventually I managed to say, in a shaky voice I did not recognise that I wondered if it might be possible to have an extension on the period of notice because I was not very well at the moment, in fact I was quite ill and was in the middle of chemotherapy and was physically unable to pack up a home, find alternative accommodation and move house in the next two months. I also said that I was happy for her to mention that to the owner of the flat but that I understood that they just needed to release capital.
She asked how much of an extension we would like and I said that even an extra month would help. She said she was very sorry to be having to tell me the news about the flat as she knew we were very happy there. 'Yes,' I said. The phone call ended.
I sat motionless in my chair and looked out of the window. Already the sky was darkening and the branches of the trees were outlined against a greying sky.
I rang Suz's mobile but it went to answering machine. I texted her with a brief account of the news. I rang her work and was told she was out on an appointment. I rang my sister and cried and cried and she was wonderful and practical and said that we would find somewhere even nicer and that she would come and do all the packing for us. She offered to raid her daughter's university fund and we totted up our savings to see if we could all buy the flat ourselves. We were a mere six-figure sum short. She is brill.
I had defrosted some fish for a Thai Fish Curry before I left the house in the morning. The sauce had been made the day before – fresh ginger, garlic, spring onions and coriander, chillies and coconut milk - so I drifted to the kitchen, on automatic, and completed the curry. Suz rang and we just said how awful it all was, she said it was our 'annus horribilis' and I returned to the sofa and the telly and watched Bergerac from the 1980s. I stared blankly as men with big lapels and women with big specs and curly perms dashed around Jersey.
At quarter to five there was a knock at the door. I thought Suz must have forgotten her keys. I opened it and a stranger stood there holding an enormous bunch of pink flowers.
She was stammering and I had to ask her who she was. 'These are for Alison,' she managed. She was saying something about the flat and I asked her if she was from the letting agency. I was starting to feel annoyed as a bunch of flowers did not really compensate for being evicted a fortnight before Christmas while in the midst of cancer and chemo. No, she said, she was the owner of the flat. Karen. I saw Suz coming up the stairs and I invited Karen in, took the flowers, dumped them in the kitchen, Suz followed and we all sat down.
I remember little of the next forty minutes but the upshot was that Karen was so sorry when the letting agency emailed her to ask for the extension, and the reason for it, that as a result she and her husband had decided to not sell the flat and instead to find a different means of funding their own need for a larger house (due to an elderly parent moving in plus a new baby on the way). She was incredibly nervous and clearly appalled at the implications for us. It all felt very complicated, and at different times all three of us were in tears. I should have offered her a cup of tea. Or a glass of wine.
She and Suz had a sensible conversation and I sat stunned, every now and then asking Suz if that meant we could stay in the flat. Yes, they both said. We don’t need to move.
I looked at the three tall book cases (covered in get well cards) and felt a huge relief that I would not be packing them all up into dozens of banana boxes. I have moved house too often in my life.
Karen left. We stayed sitting on the sofa, stunned. I knew that I was way beyond over my year's quota of stress and I suspect Suz was too. We had a glass of wine, then a bowl of fish curry and couscous, then we watched Masterchef and then we had a Proclaimers sing-song, including 'My Heart was Broh-ken!', 'I'm on my Way, from Misery to Happiness, oh yeah!', and 'When you GO will you send back, a letter from America.' We were exhausted and hysterical and the harmonies were distinctly dodgy.
We were still exhausted the next morning. Suz said she felt she had gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson. I took my 4 steroids at 0800 and got the 0900 bus to the hospital for my pre-chemo blood test. I was told I looked a little pale. 'I didn’t sleep very well,' I said. 'Bit of a drama yesterday,' I added, 'but it's sorted now, I think'.
I have always known that the UK private rental sector is a disgrace and one of the worst in Europe, leaving tenants with minimal rights, but I did not know that a complete stranger could make such a dramatic and huge gesture of compassion and choose to inconvenience and disrupt her own life to help others.
So to Karen and her husband Steve we both say simply Thank you. Final chemo tomorrow. Life goes on.
To be continued..
See Episode 1 here
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See Episode 4 here
See Episode 5 here
See Episode 6 here
See Episode 7 here
See Episode 8 here
See Episode 9 here
See Episode 10 here
See Episode 11 here
See Episode 12 here
See Episode 13 here
See Episode 14 here
See Episode 16 here.