Forgive me. I’ve . . . missed the point.
Jen’s lips twitch as if to release a fresh torrent of words. None comes. Those few linger on her tongue then dissolve into the ether of her subconscious which, like the weather, is forever changing. It hovers in a cloud tossed about by capricious gusts, it plummets her into an uneasy darkness in which her wasted limbs squirm like pale blind worms on the hospital bed. There are days she is drowning, nights when her half-life mimics the hyperactivity of a lifetime and robs her of precious breath. Only when she is sunk in a black narcotic slumber is she finally at rest.
Yet her bones must unlock one last time. Jen takes in a long snore of air and holds it. Shuffling shoulder and buttock, she inches backwards, executes a neat about-turn and unfolds against her husband’s curved back.
He turns. His fingers track to her banked core. She exhales on a sigh that resonates through the ward. In her restless unrest, her limbs remember his body, his long Irishman’s legs and lean chest. The smooth warmth of his stomach. His singular coppery scent.
Gordon flops over onto his back, arms flung out behind him. A plaintive cry rakes through her. Sweat breaks out under her arms, between her legs. She gathers herself and bends over him. Her tongue grazes his nipples and navel, flicks at the pelt of his groin. She lowers herself onto him. Taking him inside her, Jen rides him slowly, slides him so deep that every nerve end in her body crackles. She feels the wildcat clench of pelvic muscles and his racing heart in the palm of her hand.
It’s over before she allows herself to breathe properly.
Her ragged whistle conjures up a shadow which looms over her for a moment. Something brushes her forehead.
A little warm, says the shadow.
Jen feels a tug at her wrist. She rolls off Gordon onto her back. Little pools have gathered under her eyes, around her mouth. Without his heat beneath her, the air nips spitefully. She licks her lips, reaches for a corner of a sheet and wipes her face.
Gordon has his back to her, his naked shoulder sharp, glossed by moonlight. A fine spoor of sensation nests between her thighs.
From an open window somewhere, a breeze flows into the ward. The bed creaks as she tries to turn, steeped in the old sour mix of triumph and failure. There was a time when her lovemaking could raise the dead. Now her husband cares so little that he loves sleep more.
But the deed is done. Beneath the sheet, tissue skin papering Jen’s thighs quivers as she dreamlifts knees like blanched pebbles and clasps them together, buttocks taut to keep Gordon’s sperm inside her.
She surfs to consciousness on a memory of her body after lovemaking: scrubbed, languid, levitating in the sex-scented humidity like a sleepy-eyed fish, her husband’s breathing an undertow. The memory revives a powerful sense (in the circumstances) of the early years: the fierce, blood-rich currents that streamed between them. Later, when love or whatever the fever was that raged between her and Gordon began draining away, it left behind a silt of disappointment, regret, inchoate longing. And under that the inimical prick of her wounded ego. But in the end apathy blanketed all, diminished volatile battle lines to squiggles and a desolate distance of skin and limb. They became insubstantial: sketchily linked outlines not quite faint enough to vanish altogether.
A blossoming of agony sears to the bone. It ratchets Jen to full wakefulness, makes her flinch against the pillows. The silent ward echoes to the familiar dissonance of her low moan.
A soundless pink and grey nurse appears, reaches up, murmurs reassuringly. The fire inside her is put out, leaving behind markers that could ramp up and scorch at will.
Almost immediately a voice insinuates itself. Of late the voices don’t hold back. They clamour for attention; and they seem to know more about her than she does.
What are you waiting for?
This time, Jen summons up an answer. Not . . . waiting, she mumbles. Don’t tell me . . . Whoever you.
She waits, blinking to clear the persistent haze. Where do you come . . .? What . . . do you want?
Her accusers are silent. Perhaps the questions are beneath contempt. A cloud of pharmacology settles around her. Stifles debate.
after jen read – in a magazine, where else? – that humming is an antidote to anxiety and good karma into the bargain she began humming regularly. Not the ommmm or aiiimmm of a true meditator (not her!) but any song that came into her head. Which, as it turned out, might have been her mistake. She was humming ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ in the shower when she found the lump. Beneath probing fingers it felt as big as a hazelnut and as unyielding.
Her insides coalesced to a mush; the din of the shower vanished to a distant susurration. She found herself sitting on the floor, hyperventilating through hair and sheets of water.
Levering herself up against the wall on shaky legs, she switched off the taps, amazed to find that she was already ahead of the game, already in the planning stage, her head bristling with details: what to do about the house, what Gordon needed to do for her, the stuff she would have to buy and to pack for the hospital.
It was only after the humming (!) and hawing of the oncologist, puce, probably from endless repetition of his crappy mantras – hmmmm, positive thinking, willpower, hmmmm, new drugs, new discoveries all the time (for her more radiation and chemo) – that the bottom line hit her.
Her own body had pulled a fast one. As the truth sank in her outrage mushroomed and imploded inside her. Holy vessel, my eye! Her vessel was a freak, a sellout; a treacherous rat that cringed and capitulated rather than resorted to extreme measures to evict the marauder. The thing was given house room, her organs, her glands, her bloody bloodstream submitting so humbly to their sinister tenant that it practically had room service! Ample opportunity to sprout enough tentacles to take over the entire house.
An absolute control that left her out of the equation.
Jen’s mantra became why? Not why me, but the bigger question, why would her vessel – any fucking vessel – turn on itself so ferociously? She ranted at Gordon, flayed herself, bawled why? in the car going to the supermarket, driving home from bridge, after her doctor’s appointment. She harangued the oncologist, I’ve lived healthy, eaten well, exercised (moderately), used my brain (somewhat), so why, why, why?
Alone in her room in the dark, Jen bayed at the moon and the impenetrable, impervious night. An old expression of her mother’s, in her mother’s faintly hectoring rasp, crept in from somewhere: Krich arein in di bayner.
Crawls into the bones; worms its way into your most private, sensitive parts and wreaks havoc.
Much later, when her insides are embroiled in a molten holocaust and time measured in hours and days is losing its meaning, a fragile window of remission brings a hairsbreadth of light. Drifting in its beneficence, the moment she first glimpsed the other face of cancer returns to her in a wave of despair.
Sitting opposite the doctor after the initial tests, she was only half-listening to his tentative use of the pernicious cancer lingo. A language entirely new to her. Axillary surgery, sentinel node biopsy, grade of breast cancer, surgical margin, hormone receptors, HER2 status, lymph nodes, radio, chemo, hormonal therapies. Even as the doctor was speaking, Jen was dismissing the jargon: this isn’t about me, those ghastly procedures are for some other poor sucker . . .
On he ranted, and gradually loneliness took possession of her. Gordon was with her at the time, not looking at her, not even once, failing at the emotionally supportive role he hadn’t practised in more than twenty years (she hadn’t either, but then he didn’t have cancer). An icy wind squeezed her heart. Her eyes were dry, skin lifeless, flesh wrung out, desiccated. Among stunned, roiling abstractions, an ‘aha’ darted in, ringing with authenticity.
You’ve been found out. It’s been coming for years. You always knew it was only a matter of time before the knockout blow. The chmallyeh.