I was right. I spent most of the time mooning gloomily around the flat, trying not to think about what the doctors had or had not discovered. And when Caroline, me and the boys, along with Caroline’s brother Mike and his family, took Barbara out to celebrate her birthday at a local Italian restaurant, I’m afraid I found it difficult to rise to the occasion. I did my best to remember that it was Barbara’s evening and tried not to disappear into an emotional black hole. But one incident, at the end of the evening, brought me to melancholy tears.
Because Caroline had booked the table in the name of Secombe, towards the end of the meal, the proprietor of the restaurant, a dapper little Italian, came up and asked if any of us were related to Harry. Here we go, I thought, cynically, having had many experiences of being bored by perfect strangers who, once they had discovered my connection, insisted on telling me how my father had once helped them across the road/sung them a song/told them a joke/even appeared to them in a vision!
‘He was my father,’ I announced.
‘Oh, I’m delighted to meet you!’ and he shook my hand warmly.
It turned out he used to own another restaurant in Soho, one that I knew was a firm favourite with my father. In fact, as a boy, he’d even taken me there, several times.
‘He used to sing duets with me!’ the restaurateur said. ‘All the Napolitan songs – Core’ngrato; Torna A Surriento…’
I didn’t like to tell him, but my father, after a few glasses of wine, had probably sung Return to Sorrento with every Italian waiter in London.
Caroline, always eager to bring people out of themselves, suggested that in the absence of my father, perhaps he would sing for us, solo?
‘Oh, no!’ the little man protested.
But after much urging from everybody, he was persuaded.
“Vide ‘o mare quant’e bello!” he began.
His voice was light and delicate, and he was obviously nervous, but the sound that he produced came straight from the heart. It was also obvious that he was hoping that somewhere along the line, I’d join in. But that was impossible. Admittedly, hearing that song again brought memories of my father flooding back, covering me in emotion, but it wasn’t the fact that I was choked that prevented me from singing. Nor was it because I didn’t know the words – I‘d heard my father sing it often enough to be able to make a decent stab at the lyrics. No, what kept me silent was the thought that if this thing lurking on my tongue was indeed malignant, then singing was something that perhaps would never be possible again. I stayed silent as the little man serenaded our table with his light tenor voice, and I hid my tears behind my napkin.

The next few days passed in a sort of fog – a waking nightmare full of demons. I can’t really remember much about that time, other than wanting, somehow, to turn back the clock to an earlier, happier time.
Eventually, ten days after the biopsy, I received the call to attend a meeting at the hospital. No clue as to what they had or hadn’t found, just a message from a receptionist to be at the hospital the next day at ten o’clock.
It was a beautiful, sunny day when, with great trepidation, Caroline and I presented ourselves in the reception of the frighteningly named Maxillo-Facial Surgery department that morning. Caroline admitted later that she was sure they’d say I was clear. I, on the other hand was almost sure I was not.
After a short wait, we were called into the presence of the registrar I’d first met in ENT. He was dressed in a surgical gown and looked dead tired – he’d obviously come straight from theatre. Maggie was there too, and smiled cheerily as we entered the room.
‘Well,’ said the doctor, ‘come in and sit down.’
The blood was thumping in my ears as I took a seat. Caroline pulled up a chair alongside me and we awaited the doctor’s verdict.
‘Well, we now have the results of the little operation we did when we put you to sleep and took some cells from the back of your tongue.’
He was talking to us as if we were children. ‘When you did the biopsy, yes,’ I said, to make it clear that I had some, admittedly rudimentary, medical knowledge.
He stared back at me, as if through the wrong end of a telescope. His eyes were unfocused and he seemed uncertain how to continue. Caroline and I sat there blankly, waiting for him to enlighten us. But no more information was forthcoming.
‘And?’ I prompted.
Eventually he managed to shake himself out of his reverie. ‘Yes, we now have the results,’ he repeated, then, more animatedly, even cheerily, ‘So, what did you think it was?’
I looked at Caroline, rather taken aback at this tack. ‘Er… I really have no idea… you tell me.’
‘Well, you know we thought it might be a cancer on the back of your tongue?’
I nodded, it seemed like he was building up to tell me some good news.
‘Now we’ve got the results back from the little operation when we sent you to sleep and took some cells, and… it turns out that that is exactly what it is.’
This was such a cockeyed way of imparting the information, neither I nor Caroline understood immediately what he was saying.
I frowned, replaying what he’d said in my mind. Eventually I came to the conclusion that he’d just told me I had cancer, but even then I wasn’t sure.
He gazed back at us to make sure we’d got the message, then reiterated what he’d said, as if aware that neither I nor Caroline had quite taken it in. ‘We have discovered a cancer on the back of your tongue, which has spread to the lymph nodes in your neck.’
For a moment the world tipped sideways and my head was full of an angry buzzing, as if a swarm of wasps had suddenly invaded my brain. I looked sideways at Caroline, whose face was a picture of disbelief.
‘So…’ I heard her say, ‘where do we go from here?’
He looked blank. Thankfully, Maggie chose that moment to intervene.
‘Now we don’t want you to panic,’ she soothed. ‘We’re not sending you home to die, we’re going to treat you.’
‘You’re going to operate?’ I asked, my mind immediately going to the tongue removal procedure.
The doctor shook his head. ‘Any operation in that area, as well as being difficult, would be very debilitating.’
Maggie guessed my thought.
‘An operation would be too intrusive, and we’re not going to suggest taking out your tongue – we don’t offer that procedure here. But there are other things that we can do.’
‘Like what?’ Caroline asked.
The doctor went back to my file on his desk. ‘Well, a combination of radiotherapy and chemotherapy can be successful in such cases.’
‘But we need to discuss options with the oncology team,’ said Maggie. ‘We’ll set up a meeting in a couple of days, and then take it from there.’
The doctor looked up again, grey and serious. ‘Any questions?’
Caroline and I looked at each other. There was one question that was at the forefront of both our minds – was I going to die?
‘How serious is this?’ She asked.
‘Well, any cancer has to be treated seriously, and especially in this case as it’s already spread to the lymph nodes.’
‘What’s the prognosis?’ I urged.
But he wouldn’t give a straight answer. ‘These type of cancers usually respond very well to a combination of radio- and chemotherapy. The oncology team will be able to tell you more.’ He smiled grimly in a way that suggested the interview was over.
I looked to Maggie.
‘There’s a lot we need to discuss,’ she said. ‘Once your surgeon is back from holiday, he’ll meet with the oncology team to discuss options, then we’ll get you back in to talk about possible avenues of treatment.’
So that was it. Now I knew I had cancer, but only the vaguest notion of whether it could be treated successfully, and no idea at all about my future prospects.
I stood, shakily, seeking Caroline’s arm for support, but she was as wobbly as me. In the end we shambled out the room like two drunks, leaning on each other for support.
Outside, in the hospital corridor, we looked at each other.
‘Well I didn’t expect that,’ Caroline said.
‘I did,’ I replied.
She studied my face. ‘You knew?’
‘I had an idea. I hoped I was wrong, but I had a feeling.’
Then, in a strange, numb silence, we wandered through the hospital and back out into the sunshine.

Posted by AndySecombe 12:23:18 26.06.2007;
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