She died of cancer 10 years ago, having tried every homeopathic and alternative remedy on offer, including a scary concoction of gnarled Red Indian roots, which the manager of our hotel in Lourdes allowed her to boil up four times a day until fellow pilgrims complained about the smell.
It was Alex who introduced me to homeopathy. We were drinking spiced Kashmiri tea in her basement flat and I was complaining, as usual, about my arthritis, which no amount of acupuncture, reflexology, yoga, Dr Bach's Flower Remedies, or the pills prescribed by my doctor seemed to be able to cure. Had I tried rooftops, said Alex.
Rooftops? This was a new one on me and, heaven knows, I had tried a heck of a lot of arthritis cures, all equally ineffectual. The nicest, recommended by a boozy old aunt, was to soak a pound of sultanas in a bottle of gin for a week and then take three tablespoonfuls before breakfast every morning. The nastiest, recommended by my mother, who was clearly settling old scores, was to wrap my affected limbs in fresh stinging nettles.
Rooftops sounded interesting, if a little dangerous. Not rooftops, rhus tox, said Alex. It was homeopathic medicine which, as far as she was concerned, was the only medicine worth taking. So I tried it. Instead of gin-soaked sultanas and the sulfasalazine capsules, I put a tiny white sugar-coated pill under my tongue every morning and then Alex would ring and ask how it was going, and we would discuss my condition at length for hours and hey presto, within a week, my arthritis had vanished. What did I tell you, said Alex, homeopathy is the way forward. And I had to agree until a month later she went off to Nanjing for a year to learn Chinese and my arthritis came back.
Next time I went to the clinic I told the consultant about my brief brush with homeopathy and rhus tox. He was sympathetic but not surprised. A lot of his patients gave up conventional medicines for alternative therapies, he said, but in the end they always came back. So why had my symptoms disappeared, I demanded. Because, said the consultant patiently, my friend had taken the time to telephone me every morning and talk about my problems which made me feel cherished and important.
This is precisely what homeopathic doctors do: they make their patients feel loved because they have more time than harassed overworked NHS doctors. He then wrote me out a prescription for a brand new drug, four pills to be taken every morning and every night, referred me to a support group, gave me the number of a 24-hour helpline and hey presto, within a month I was going to salsa classes at a new dance studio called Viva Zapata.
If homeopaths were more like Alex and less like Prince Charles, I'd probably be more inclined to listen to their enthusiastic recommendations, but alas they are not. They lecture you like vegetarians and make you feel uninformed and guilty when you give your child a junior Aspirin instead of arnica. "I honestly don't know how you can sleep at night after pumping your child full of dangerous drugs," said a house guest who subscribes to a monthly magazine called What the Doctors Don't tell You, which gives you so many alarming facts about orthodox medicine you would never set foot inside a surgery or a hospital again if you believed everything you read in it.
It was this particular guest, I'll call her Janet, who turned me against Rescue Remedy, a tiny bottle of which I have carried around in my bag for years because it reminds me of Alex. She used it a lot. Have you heard of Rescue Remedy, by the way? It's a mixture of five of Dr Bach's flower distillations. You use it in the same way that Victorian ladies used smelling salts when they had an attack of the vapours. The last time I used mine was after the battle of the Orcs and the Nazgul in the final episode of The Lord of the Rings. So anyway, we went for tea at Janet's house and my seven-year-old son fell down an entire flight of stairs, resulting in quite a few grazes, bruises and bumps. "Quick, quick where's the Rescue Remedy?" she said. Give me a break Janet. There are times when only Elastoplast and a lollipop will do.