I first met them in September 2012, after a summer spent recuperating and recovering from a cancer. I decided to walk to hospital, my first big trip out in the world again, testing my new, tender self to see how I was with this, sleeping outside, pushing my body.
I walked down the river Severn, following it from the source to the sea - Bristol - where St Michaels hospital awaited me.
At the end of one too long day I'd walked to Bewdley but had nowhere to sleep, walked a bit further, Stourport got in the way, still nowhere I could sleep. I came past a lock and to a steep, dank wood; 17 miles on the road by this point, rucksack cutting into my shoulders, feet likes stones in my boots. One last push and I came to a grassy meadow with a weeping willow in the centre, perfect. Just one problem, a caravan in the corner and it looked like there was someone inside it. I decided to go and ask if I could sleep in the field, too tired to go any further.
And amazingly a lovely friendly head popped out of the caravan...and that was Gaz.
We made a fire, we drank beer, we talked about silly things. He was impressed with my story, in the way that cancer can sometimes be a magic word that way, and during the evening he went to fetch Steph. She lived in the first boat down on the river and was Gaz's boss, kind of. I can't remember what we talked about that night, just a kind of light shining out of her face as she talked about being a nurse, and how enthusiastic she was about what I was doing. She gave me a little bag of food the next day and a card that said I was a special person.
I spent the night in the caravan, chastely, and we had a big hug the next morning. Gaz was saving up money to travel to South America.
I sent them a few postcards from further down the way, telling them where I'd got to downriver.
The second time was last August, 2013. I decided to kayak to hospital this time so I borrowed a boat and got a friend to lug me to the river at Pool Quay and push me off. I didn't have their phone numbers but I wanted to stop by and say hello. I couldn't find a decent space to pull up by the grassy meadow so I floated on a bit towards Steph's canal boat and, a bit shyly, looked to see if there was anyone in. There was, she was in the kitchen. "Do you remember me?" I said, feeling proud to be coming to say hello in a kayak. Yes yes, of course she did, and she invited me in for a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich. Steph is like me, she'll get philosophical at the drop of a hat so we went off on great rambles for a few hours, talking about the world and getting to know each other a bit more. I met her husband and learned about how she'd cared for him during his serious illnesses. Gaz wasn't there in the meadow any more, he'd moved his caravan back to the boatyard and was working that day. We tried calling him but couldn't get through. So off I went, with a hug from Steph, a phone number and another little parcel of food.
This time, just yesterday, I called at the boatyard and Gaz was there! He just got back from South America last week and I was so happy to see him.
This time, Steph was there too, but this time she's been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
So I saw Gaz for the evening, met a few associates of the ramshackle boatyard. They all paid me their respects in their own ways when we spoke about what we're doing - Dave came and emptied his change jar into my donation tin, then bought me a cup of coffee and some rich tea biscuits on a plate with flowers on it. Another Dave put a pound in the tin and got out some crisps and olives. Matthew emptied his change jar into the tin, taking out the screws first and invited me round for dinner. Then I stayed in the caravan again, Gaz is nice to be around.
The next morning I went to see Steph before I left, I wasn't sure if she'd want to see me as she'd had people over the day before and it'd all been a bit rushed. But she did and first we talked about my journey, I showed her my shock blister photo and talked about how much I was enjoying myself. Then she talked about cancer and at first it was the nuts and bolts stuff of where it is and how she's feeling, physically. What she's doing about it and when her next appointment is.
Then after a while we got onto the real feelings, the things you can't say easily to most people. How frightening and isolating and lonely cancer is. About how it's on your mind all the time, sitting in front of your face, taking up your consciousness. And about how self centred it makes you, all your focus turned inwards so that you can't bear to be polite to other people, when they do something compassionate but misjudged, no matter how well meaning, you just want to tell them to fuck off, even if you've never done that before. Even though I had a mild kind of cancer, the kind where it can be taken out we still knew exactly what the other was talking about and it was really really lovely yo spend the morning with her and connect one again.
So this is to tell you about meeting friends again and connecting with people. And to tell you about Steph.