By Susan Clifton-Tucker
Under normal circumstances I would not be writing this lockdown account from Calpe House, in central London. I am here with my husband Andrew, who has been diagnosed with a rare Ewing’s Sarcoma on his knee. Our lives, like those of so many, have been turned upside down by cancer. Thankfully we will learn that it is localised and early stage with a good prognosis. As a therapeutic exercise and to make sense of our lives, I kept a diary.
We arrived on the 1st January. It was a freezing, miserable, rain-soaked day. What a way to start the year! Welcome, 2020. I’m just grateful that we had no idea then, that things were to take a more sinister turn, with the arrival of COVID-19.
What a way to start the year!
We didn’t know how long we would be staying. I think we estimated it would be a few weeks, tops. As it turns out we will be living here for several months.
Calpe House on Norfolk Square couldn’t be better located, as it’s close to the capital’s hospitals and Kensington Gardens is just around the corner. We are housed in a large suite with a kitchenette and shower room. It’s light and bright overlooking the gardens. This, then, is where we will be living for the duration. Manager Dee, together with Jaime and Jo and their team welcome us with a staggering amount of kindness.
As a home from home, we wondered how long it would take before we bumped into people we knew and in good old Gibraltarian fashion, the answer was a day. Feeling vulnerable, it was comforting to meet up with Albert Poggio, Chairman of the board of Trustees. He worked tirelessly to make Calpe House a reality and is on hand to offer help and advice.
Several people we knew checked in after us and we soon settled into a happy routine of meeting up in the evenings in the communal lounge for a game of cards, or just to get together and catch up on our day.
Of course, we are not here on holiday and our lives soon become consumed with rounds of hospital tests, followed by cycles of chemotherapy. Andrew’s treatment is on alternate weeks, so we make the most of free time, organising outings. Anything to create a distraction. We also seek out a nearby gym and discover we have one on our doorstep in St Mary’s Hospital. The Pinnacle Gym even has an indoor pool. Result!
Come March though, any semblance of normality came to an abrupt end, as the spectre of coronavirus raised its lethal head. Suddenly, as with the rest of the world, we were pretty much confined to barracks. Social distancing was introduced and we were provided with masks, rubber gloves and sanitisers, which disappeared from shop counters overnight.
We started hearing reports that some hospitals were delaying chemotherapy and even cancelling operations as a result of the virus. Thankfully no one undergoing treatment at Calpe House was affected, but many around the country have been.
Cleaning goes into overdrive, as everything is scrubbed and disinfected to within an inch of its life. As cancer patients on treatment have a compromised immune system, catching the virus could prove fatal.
Food is bought in to be cooked in-house when needed. Recovering patient Paul Setter and his wife Mananie volunteer to do the honours. They are both excellent cooks and treat us to dishes as varied as coq au vin to lentejas.
Dee and the team can’t do enough for us. Nothing is too much trouble. Following a conversation about our love of fashion, she surprised me with a stylish black mask with a leopard print trim. Jaime shaved Andrew’s hair off, bringing in his own clippers. Jo organises transport to and from hospital. All of them go way and above the call of duty, with a ready smile.
If you have stayed at Calpe House, you will already know how lucky we are to have this facility. It’s a real bonus to know you are surrounded by loving support and friendship. There is always someone around to have laugh or cry with.
Even during lockdown, not a day goes by when we don’t meet and catch up with our ‘new family’. It’s hard not being allowed to give each other a hug.
April has heralded the sunniest weather here since records began, so a walk round Kensington Gardens becomes our daily form of exercise. Easter Eggs are delivered to everyone at Calpe House by a mysterious samaritan, who we later learn is Angela Manning. Angela, whose mum is Gibraltarian, and whose daughter Natalie is currently living on the Rock, knows people who have stayed at Calpe House before and how difficult it was for them being away from home, so she wanted to let us know we’re being thought about. Mission accomplished!
It’s hard not being allowed to give each other a hug.
Come May, Andrew has successfully had his tumour removed, together with part of his tibia and has had a knee replacement in what turned out to be a 5-hour surgery. Months of gruelling chemotherapy still lies ahead, together with intensive physiotherapy. He is feeling strong and positive.
Thank goodness for the internet allowing us to keep in contact on different forums. There has never been so much to choose from for entertainment and self-improvement. Concerts, exhibitions, online workouts, and tutorials. It’s also a vital tool for us to be able to keep up to date with news from the Rock and the wider world. Luckily, we are also receiving copies of The Gibraltar Magazine each month!
As I write, we are still in lockdown and I wonder if we will ever return to normal. The devastation that the pandemic has caused and is continuing to cause, claiming thousands of lives globally will surely change us forever. Additionally, the economic consequences will doubtless be seismic. Surely this is a time for all of us to take stock and improve the way we have been living our lives. Our plundered planet is creaking under our weight.
A difficult situation really does bring out the best in people. Whilst we are all desperately missing our family and friends in Gibraltar, we have somehow found a way to get through these dark times. As lockdown eases, we start meeting for lunch in the communal kitchen. Dr Peter Borge brings a lovely red wine to the table and Eli Hermida provides her legendary bread pudding.
Shops in the area are well stocked. Masked up and looking like a bank robber, I nip out to buy more hand cream, as the constant hand washing is drying our skin. Social distancing is strictly enforced and there is a one in one out policy. Although restaurants are closed, many are offering a delivery service.
Being away from home and dealing with a serious illness, with the additional limitations imposed as a result of the virus, is no walk in the park but things can only get better. They will get better; we need to believe that.
No praise could do sufficient justice to the work carried out by the GHA, the Calpe House Trust and the magnificent staff here. They deserve all our support. It’s our home today, it could be your home tomorrow.
Donations to Friends of Calpe House can be made by bank transfer to Acc No: 06569001 Sort Code: 60-83-14 IBAN: GI88GIBK000000656900001 or by cheque made payable to Friends of Calpe House to PO Box 727, Gibraltar GX11 1AA. Alternatively, visit Calpe House on Facebook.