Remembering my friend Deborah Orr, who would only accept a favour if she really needed it

I was glad she was going to be my neighbour in Brighton and volunteered to help her with anything she needed. 

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Another health scare, and now is not the time. I’ve been reading Alan Bennett’s Writing Home – one of those books that everyone has – and came across this entry for 9 July 1984: “After four days feeling under sentence of death, having found a small lump on my foot, I go to the doctor.”

It turns out to be nothing much, a thrombosed vein. The doctor reassures him that his anxiety is normal.

“It’s quite natural. Most people are the same, particularly when they get to…” and he looks down at my notes.

“‘My age?’ I supply.

“Yes. No way of saying that in a complimentary way, is there?”

Bennett was 50 years and two months old when he wrote those words; that is, more than six years younger than I am now. The insolent pup. My worries are a bit more serious than that: I can’t breathe. My asthma medication, which I have torn through, is running out, and the pharmacy’s fax machine is broken so they can’t send over a prescription. This causes further anxiety, which makes the asthma-like symptoms even worse, and… well, you get the picture.

But the real reason this is not the time is because last week Deborah Orr died, of breast cancer that had metastasised. She was a friend and, for a while, my editor, and she was only a year older than me. I didn’t see her often; one of the last times was at a Saturday lunch party a couple of years ago, shortly before London spat me out and stopped me from seeing all but my very closest friends and relations. We were in the garden, and she was smoking both cigarettes and a vape. I tried the vape and nearly coughed my lungs out.

I visited her in hospital in London a couple of months ago; she was going to move down to Brighton, where she’d bought a house following the terrible end of her marriage.

I was glad she was going to be my neighbour and volunteered to help her with anything she needed; an offer she gratefully accepted. This pleased me, because she didn’t accept favours unless she needed them. One visitor brought her some apple and turmeric juice, and she was scathing on Twitter about the assumption behind the gift (ie that turmeric somehow cures cancer; it was a bit late for that).

My favourite story about her, which I heard only the other day, was about her relationship with the editor of a certain daily newspaper, who had earlier, for no apparent reason, sacked her – and moreover had, it is said, used her assistant to do so. When this editor sent a text to her not-quite deathbed expressing sympathy, Deborah’s reply was succinct: “Go fuck yourself.”

The cancer ward at Guy’s Hospital wasn’t quite her deathbed because she was moved to Brighton, but as she was too ill to move into her home, she was in a nearby hospital. That’s OK, I thought, I’ll be able to pop in. And then I volunteered to look after this budgerigar in Faversham. It’s OK, I thought, it’ll only be a month, she’ll last that long. But she didn’t.

So now here I am, wheezing and coughing drily; on bad days I work up a sweat just walking around the flat. I find myself sleeping most of the day, even more than I did in Brighton, and have an almost total loss of appetite. The breathlessness is the worst part; after walking up just two flights of stairs I thought I was going to pass out. (I am smoking much less these days; mostly one or two a day, sometimes none. But then, like a bottle of apple and turmeric juice, it may be too little, too late.)

I wonder if I will actually die the next time I have sex, but as I am not sure if I will ever have sex again this is not the first of my worries. The first of my worries is homelessness. Then dying. The third is whether I will ever have sex again. The fourth is taxes. The fifth is whether I will die during sex. Maybe not even fifth. I mean, I should be so lucky. There are worse ways to go, although it can’t be fun for the other party. I heard a story that Patrick Troughton, the actor, died on the job, at a Doctor Who convention, on top of a fan who had insisted on his wearing the costume. Can that be true?

So I now go around wondering how much longer I have. I have only a week left before I discharge my responsibilities to Diogenes the budgie; I should be able to hang on for that. And then I read a reference to “bird-fancier’s lung” in the latest Viz. No sniggering at the back. I look it up: “Initial symptoms include shortness of breath (dyspnea), especially after sudden exertion … anorexia, weight loss, extreme fatigue”

So that’s it. I’m going to be killed by a budgerigar. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 30 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone