(The) Last Year – a taste of what’s in store
Deborah Heaney is not at ease with her life. She should be happy, she knows, as her situation is privileged. She lives in a gorgeous part of the Scottish countryside and has enough money, having retired from her teaching job, to do what she wants. Her husband John, a GP, and her twin boys, students at university, are all together for the Christmas holidays. She has a doctor’s appointment which delivers a bombshell into her life, a diagnosis which confirms her secret anxiety. She is unwilling to give it a name, having a hatred of illness, and promptly labels it NAA, Nothing At all. She decides to tell no one about this diagnosis. There are two keys bits of information that she takes away from her follow-up hospital appointment on New Year’s Eve:
She should have at least one year with no escalation of symptoms, which are so far very minor.
There is no treatment currently available to slow or eradiate the disease’s progression.
Denial is her preliminary strategy. She continues to socialise,
enjoying time with good friends, who help her feel that life is continuing in some sort of normal fashion. But her panic leaks through and causes her to react to occasionally feel overwhelming anger. This signals the beginning of a mercifully brief period where she is depressed and lethargic, unable to sympathise with her friends, fretful about the state of the world, and unable to stir herself to act.
Finally spring, her friends and her patient husband jolt her out of her withdrawal.
And then she sets out on a time of travel, discovery and adventure, opening her eyes to experiences which connect her to her distant past and then propel her into an unexpected future.
And there’s a doppelganger, of course. And far too much wine. And some dancing too.
Here’s a wee bit of the start to let you see what it’s all about.
(THE) LAST YEAR
by Pat Kirby
© 2016, Pat Kirby. Except as provided by the Copyright Act, 1956, UK, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the author.
Hogmanay is one of the most misspelt words in the whole Scottish vocabulary. And most folk outside of Scotland haven’t a clue what it is about. But to those in the know, it’s the souped-up version of New Year’s Eve, complete with the biggest street party ever, I’m pretty sure, to be held in horizontal rain and eye-watering wind. Edinburgh’s rather famous version has now spread to Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee and even little hamlets like ours.
But the main thing about Hogmanay is that you are expected to be so drunk and/or drugged and also suffering from sleep deprivation on a national scale so that you slide into the new year with scarcely a thought for one morrow, let alone 365 of them. Live for the party; party like there never will be another chance to down whisky/fizzy wine/fill in the blank with your brain-numbing refreshment of choice.
I’ve barely managed that on a handful of Hogmanays/New Year’s Eves in all my 65 years. Changing continents didn’t improve the experience for me – but my ability to, when in doubt, sleep long and sleep sound has carried me through a good few. I usually avoid the obligatory parties and first footings, having socialised to my fill leading up to Christmas and in the dead zone in between the two book ends of the old year’s ending. But avoidance doesn’t mean that I am unscathed by the dire call to both partypartyparty and at the same time take a long and lingering look at everything about one’s life, including partner(s), if relevant, children (or their lack) and their situations, employment or its absence and anything else including the state of your soul, as well, of course, as vowing to improve the body beyond recognition in the year to follow. Diet, exercise, detox, get fit – whatever you call it, the intention is the same: with strong will, we can all be the most desirable and delicious version of ourselves.
It’s strange how this call to reflect doesn’t make most people want to retreat. But it’s always pushed me that way, as far back as I can remember. I certainly recall spending one new year in my rampant 20s in a nearly derelict cottage with only very noisy rooks walking the ridge of the tin roof for gruesome and unsettling company. Even so, that seemed more appropriate to me than dancing and drinking the night away and having the hangover of the century to start a new era the following day.
All of this makes me sound joyless and anti-social, doesn’t it? And over the years, it’s true, I have become less of a party person than I was in my younger days. That’s not unusual though, is it? And I still love to meet up with friends, especially a few female ones, and talk and laugh. And dancing – I’ve always loved it – all sorts, from the sweats of Scottish country through ballroom clinches to popping up and down and around to anything with a beat. I used to really love dancing with John. His intensity translated into something dangerous and breath-catching when we drank a little too much and took to the floor together, even at the Parent/Teacher end of year discos, unlikely as that sounds. Somehow that didn’t seem to be happening much at the beginning of the last year.
But anyway, just before Christmas last year was when it started – or, more truthfully, when I acknowledged that something was going on – and Hogmanay was the day it began to unfold for me. And me alone. More about that later. If you’re still with me. Do stick around. I think I like you already. Maybe you can tolerate me for a wee whiley?
So no convoluted medical details. Even if I could remember them. Don’t most of us go to see a doctor for reassurance? You know, the ‘Of course, I know that spot probably isn’t a melanoma, doctor, but I thought I should have it looked at, especially as I grew up in Kentucky and got sunburned a lot in the days before sun block’ type enquiry.
Well, I do any way or I used to, let’s say. And listening when the news is not that ameliorating ‘No, you’re fine, nothing to worry about’ that some of us expect – that’s hard. So back in the last week of December, between visits to John’s family in Ireland and a round of pleasant enough mince pies and non-alcoholic drinks for one of us (too often me, I have been heard to complain), I fitted in the visit to the medical centre, to get the results of some tests I’d had a few weeks before. I ensured that there was no one told about it and for once I didn’t meet anyone I knew or used to teach or anything. Just a room quite full of people coughing and sighing – or nursing their sprained or broken limbs (there had been a lot of ice around Christmas and this looked like a consequence- or else there had been lots of Christmas disputes over too many sherries.)
No surprise here, my reader friend – my complaint did not result in reassurance. In fact, I found myself in Dumfries having some further, rather more complex series of tests before that day was out. And no one was for telling me what was causing all the fuss. Not that I asked too many questions. At the time, my chief concern was how to keep John and the twins and their partners, who were all away for the day to Arran to climb a hill or two, ignorant about what was happening. Although, of course, at that first stage, I had no idea what was going to become the future I would be living. I got out of the hospital as soon as the last drop of blood disappeared into another little container, clutching an appointment date and time to return in a few days and find out what they had uncovered.
Which is how it felt to me. I had walked into some one else’s little world, a universe where others – doctors, nurses, receptionists, maybe even the guy who wouldn’t stop whistling while he mopped the floor– behaved as though they were making decisions about me. I felt exposed and somehow ridiculous. It sounds so unfair now to describe those well-intentioned and probably highly competent people as aliens, but in terms of my life before that afternoon they were. I don’t think I’d ever spent any time in hospital which didn’t involve babies being born, and then as briefly as possible.
So out I hurried. As though if I got away from the medical focus everything would return to normal, with an open-ended, apparently eternal life unrolling in front of me.
I made it home before the gang returned from Arran, looking happily exhausted and quite oblivious to anything else. I fed them massive amounts of soup, bread and cheese and wine and beer and cider and found that with no effort at all I was managing not to think about what had happened to me that day. Well, perhaps I was a little edgier than usual. Everyone seemed a little bit too loud, a touch too boisterous, ruddy with joy. But I was glad to see them.
While we wrapped up cheeses and washed up the plates (the young ones were re-grouping in the sitting room, phoning mates and getting ready to descend on our local pub to catch up with their far-flung friends who were back ‘home’ for the Two Week Shutdown), we let the silence do its usual thing. When had we become so skilled at not asking each other about anything more important than: “Where have you put those new tea towels you bought, Deborah? These are so thin they don’t soak up any water, you know.” This said with his back to me while he looked in the wrong part of the cupboard and then the shoulder twitch to let me know that he hated the lack of order that he had just observed yet again in the utensils drawer.
Silently I handed him a towel from the stack on the counter top.
Then I tried: “What do you think we should do tomorrow? Only one more day before our darlings disappear back to the metropolis. Should we go for a walk if the weather holds up, maybe up Tynron Doon?” It had been years since we’d made that gentle climb. In fact, I was sure the last time had been a white Christmas day when the twins were still shorter than me.
John turned to look at me as I leaned against the counter. He was still holding a cup in his hand. It was his favourite one, the hand-made cup he drank his coffee from most mornings. Did he love it more than me? I wondered for an instance. But I knew I wasn’t thinking with any clarity, perhaps not really thinking at all. I met his eyes and noticed how lined his face looked in the harsh overhead light we had turned up to full beam while we worked away. He was still the very handsome charmer I had fallen far a lifetime ago – but even though he’s five years younger than me, he was clearly not immune to the traction of time. And I did love him still, of course I did. I just didn’t appear to have much time to think about him or even notice him really.
“What have you been up to today, Deborah?” He broke his gaze. What might he have seen in my face, I wondered. It seemed a long time since we had had the kind of conversation which might have included that question.
My tendency, I know well, is to talk too much if I want to conceal anything. Surely I should have learnt more about becoming a better liar over the years. Especially with my nose for a lie from the boys, especially in those core lying years of 13 to 17.
“Not a lot. This and that. Mostly I just read and tried to shift this cold that’s been hanging around.” I felt quite queasy at that point, some sense of the bridge I just walked over dissolving behind me, slowly rippling into the chasm below.
“Think you’ll feel like a long walk tomorrow?” John’s tone sounded indifferent. Was that to the idea of a ramble or was it about whether or not I came along? Had he been offended by my crying off the Arran day out? I couldn’t really summon up the will to care one way or another. I just had too much not to think about, trying hard to keep thinking on the other side of a very secure door, at least until the holiday was behind me.
Okay, time to explain some of my compulsive secrecy. I hate illness. I’m rubbish at visiting friends and family in hospitals. I have zero patience for people who, as it seems to me, choose to define themselves via their ailments: the ‘I can’t do X because of Y’ people.
As a result of all this prejudice (see, I do understand that this lack of compassion was just crying out for a petard to hoist me with), I have never been comfortable with anyone’s illnesses, including my own. A hangover, a cold, a mild bout of flu – okay, these are perfectly acceptable and can even be mentioned in polite company. But when my over-stuffed, 8-and-a-half-months-pregnant-with-twins body started to swell from the toes up, I found myself telling everyone, even the doctor, that “I’m fine, just fine,” through gritted teeth and while tears leaked surreptitiously out of piggy, little, swollen eyes. And that was luckily a very temporary state of affairs as the twins exploded out a few days later.
So picture how well I was coping with making my first trip to the doctor with an unexplained concern, a worry about my body that wasn’t to do with falling over my skis and cracking my elbow or something else equally transient. I had spent nearly 9 months, almost a full pregnancy’s worth of days and nights, attempting to wait out whatever was going on with me, expecting whatever was happening to unhappen in double quick time. And when I finally gave in, being rushed in to Dumfries and having various bits of me poked and prodded and being forced to face up to something not very pretty which had been lurking in the corner of my fears – none of that was playing to my strengths.
All of which explains why John, my partner of 26 years and counting, was not in receipt of my account of what had transpired that day. And also why, when I had the phone call two days later confirming my appointment, with some sort of specialist nurse at the hospital no less, the following day, Hogmanay itself, I told no one. Not even my very best of all friends , safely far away in California, Claudia.
No. I wanted my freedom. Free from other people’s worries about me, about what it might mean for them and all that. This was my precious secret and I alone could decide what I was going to do about it. It was a way of snatching back a little bit of me from whatever was waiting to try to re-arrange my universe.
The nurse was actually very useful. He offered me counselling sessions without any pressure and showed nothing but a calm detachment when I declined. How scary was that?
“Are you sure you want to know the results of the tests?” was his opening salvo. He carried on looking down at his notes and then moved his eyes to meet mine. His were shockingly blue, the kind of blue that’s so shiny it looks phoney. Coloured contacts? Surely not. I was, I suppose, looking for something else to think about rather than the facts he was about to produce.
“Of course,” was my reply. Frankly I didn’t know how to put this off and anyway, if I delayed, the counselling offer would be back on the table. Maybe later but just for now, I needed to know. Or maybe I couldn’t bear the thought of being a wuss? Once I’d spoken, that was my pair of dice thrown down hard and right off the edge of the table.
So he told me. I was positive (how ridiculous that sounds when the truth is so starkly negative). And then on and on he went, while I faded in and out of focus with my eyes firmly glued to his. They reminded me so strongly of Grandpa Jimmy’s. Wonder if I have him to blame for the gruesome sentence that’s being oh-so-gingerly laid out in front of me.
Finally I let him off the hook. You could see the relief on his face when I said, “I really only have one question. How long will I have – I don’t mean until I die – but until I , well whatever -when this thing won’t just be a future problem?”
I could see that he didn’t get me at all. Honestly, I wasn’t really sure what I meant exactly but had another go. “What I want to know is, can I get on with my life for a while? How long before I have to stop cycling, swimming, walking, travelling – and have to start telling folk what’s happening?”
There was a sturdy silence for a few moments. Then: “These things are never totally predictable. But judging by your test results and what you told your GP about the symptoms you’ve experienced over the past months, it is fair to say that you’re at an early stage of your condition’s progression.” Once again, I noticed his reluctance to use the dreaded words. I was comforted by that. In my head already I was for calling it nothing at all. Or even ’Nothing At All’. Just like when you’re wee, lying in your bedroom in the dark when you’re meant to be asleep and trying not to look at the ominous shadow over by the darkest corner of the room. ‘Nothing At All’ was so much preferable to giving the black shadow a substantial name. Much easier to fall asleep if ‘NAA’ was not really there.
So we colluded, my blue-eyed nurse and I. “There is no reason to expect any kind of rapid development of symptoms at this point. Whatever you have been able to do so far, you should be able to continue for the foreseeable, the next year anyway, unless things take an unusual pattern.” And he had no magic potions to offer me, not yet, perhaps not ever. Somehow that bit didn’t surprise me. I had never expected any axe that might fall to be designed to shudder to a halt a few centimetres from my exposed neck. Oh no, chemical reprieves were not part of my expectation – and clearly not my clear-eyed nurse’s either.
A year: at least one year. More than many at my age, to know that you are likely to have a year. Lots of my teacher ex-colleagues seemed to wilt when the classroom routine wasn’t there to get them out of bed each morning, when there were no more papers to mark shaping their evenings. But I, I had a year. No job to go to – I’d retired last July. No kids to care for and no grandchildren either and none anticipated at this point. Just my own life for a year –and maybe lots more? No, I could tell he though it was unlikely that there’s be lots of next years before the wheels started to fall off in a major way. I believed that then and still know it now. But one year fairly free of too much impact from NAA. One whole year.
I left the hospital and walked to my dear car, my retirement gift to myself, a Volkswagen Golf convertible – or ‘cabriolet’ as the saleswoman insisted on glam-naming it. It gleamed at me in the car park, alongside all the sensible motors of all the other folk who were needing glued together in one way or another. I’ve always hated cleaning cars, maintaining that they only get dirty again straightaway if you live in the country. But not this one. I actually enjoy giving it its weekend tidy and bath. And today it repaid me by looking confident and positive (not the kind of ‘positive’ I’d just had poured into my ear, mercifully.) Not the car of someone who worried too much about tomorrow. Good.
Stages of grief: I’d studied them way back as part of some counselling skills course or other we’d had to sit through as part of our ‘professional development’. I didn’t feel like driving away once I’d put myself back in my luxury cocoon. So I dug out my phone and googled them in the outpatient car park. Crazy? I kind of thought so, but it worked to keep the other kind of thinking outside my Faraday cage. And then I put on the radio and listened to the sounds of the year-end party building. I felt I was rubbing salt into some wound, trying to get a response. But nothing – not numbness, not anger. I realised that I had known that something like NAA was coming. All those months of wondering what shape the shadow would take – but knowing that it was on its way and that it had my name on it. So it goes.
I drove home quite slowly by my standards to a quiet house. John had gone back to work at the start of the week and the twins had flown off, literally, to do some skiing in Slovakia, of all places. As I unlocked the front door, I heard the landline going. I rushed in to grab it before the voicemail took over. Silence on the other end, then the click of a machine and an overly enthusiastic voice kicked in mid-sentence: “…in your area. We are pleased to let you know that…” I returned the phone to its charger and swore silently at the gods who control telecommunications. If we can land a robot with a complex camera on a comet, surely we can find a way to fix nuisance calls for good?
It was not my nursing angel phoning my reprieve. Why I had ever imagined it was, I cannot guess. But clearly my head and my heart weren’t in harmony here. I drifted over to the kitchen cabinet which shelters all the hard stuff and poured myself a bourbon, adding lots of ice. It was getting dark outside, nearly 3.30 and the year was about to extinguish itself in the damp murk of a Scottish winter. I would have liked to go straight to bed and just remain there until the whole Hogmanay-infected country had swept its streets, binned its empties and forgotten why it had lost its head yet again. But meanwhile there was some dinner to cook, a bad movie or two to watch and John to kiss to the sound of Jools Holland’s increasingly raspy New Year chant.
Happy New Year.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch
Secrecy brings its own rewards.
A week after the year belly-flopped into the future, I met up with two other Ladies Who Occasionally Lunch for a catch up after the holidays had finally been put back into the loft for another year.
Jen arrived at Ms Pink’s Café last as always. Lesley and I had already ordered and were beginning to check phones in case Jen was trying to cry off.
“Oh, hello, hello. Sorry but it took me about an hour to get parked.” Jen started unwrapping herself of scarf, cape and cap, all in the various shades of orange plaid that she likes to think matches her hair – or used to anyway. Her hairdresser is clearly moving her towards the bold end of the red spectrum these days. “Have you both ordered?” We nodded, not even attempting to get a word in at this point. “I’ll just go up to the counter then and see if I can get sorted out toot sweet.” She flung the pile of outer garments onto the spare chair and squeezed her way through the closely-arranged tables.
Lesley’s head had followed Jen’s progress towards the back of the café. As she turned back she brushed her blond hair from her face with one hand. Goodness but she is beautiful, I thought. How had I not really ever noticed that before? She was a good couple of decades younger than Jen and I which had to help – but I suspect she will also make a stunning pensioner. Her skin glowed, her hair gleamed and she had the body of a fit twenty year old. She gave me one of her complicit smiles. Jen sustains the ability to weld her friends into little gangs as they respond to her noise, her size, her self-absorption by laughing gently (and sometimes a little bit harshly) at her behind her back.
Lesley couldn’t maintain a sarcastic posture, even with Jen, however. “She looks well, doesn’t she?” Lesley leaned over the table to me as she spoke, while Jen started back across the room. I remembered guiltily that Jen was awaiting an appointment for a second hip replacement, having had the first one about a year ago. She was probably in a fair amount of pain and also fattening up due to a lack of exercise. I hadn’t really had the time to spend with Jen during her last operation as I was still working long days at school. But this time around – well, I would need to try to do my bit.
I had time to nod before Jen joined us again. She flopped carelessly into her chair and looked sharply at us both.
“So, what have you both been up to? I haven’t seen you since my solstice party. Santa been good to you?” Her last question was aimed at Lesley. Jen did have an acute eye for the new acquisition.
Lesley put both of her hands on the table. On her right her ring finger was flashing, not very discreetly, a diamond and sapphire band. Lesley, modest as usual, flushed a little to be centre stage. But she was smiling, too, obviously pleased with her new sparkler.
“What a gorgeous eternity ring, Lesley. Did Liam cough that up for Christmas? What good taste that man has.”
I concurred with Jen’s comments of course. But mostly I noticed how happy we were. Jen seemed genuinely pleased for her friend, with no apparent undercurrent of envy or greed (which isn’t always the case with Jen). And Lesley was so clearly charmed by her husband’s thoughtfulness that, for once, she didn’t try to turn the conversation away from her own good fortune to some one else’s. So there we sat, all beaming away and looking into the blue hearts of the jewels on a pretty woman’s finger.
What, dear reader, do you make of them – and me? Such self-satisfied, middle-aged (and quite a lot older) women who are clearly affluent by local, national and certainly international standards; women who have the time and space and money to hang around and talk about next to nothing for a couple of hours in the middle of a working day? Nothing out of the ordinary for their time and place perhaps. But do they know how very unusual it is in the history of womankind to have that kind of luxurious situation? Do they realise how very extraordinary their circumstances are, even in the context of their own time?
As it happened, that was precisely what I was holding close to me as I looked around that café and into the faces of my friends. I felt a kind of buzzing in my ears and a shiver passed down my shoulders to my hands. How long could even this moment last? And how did we come to treat our good fortune so lightly? There was no consciousness of my own medically-labelled and dated fate able to penetrate the little golden globe of Ms Pink’s. Maybe I could just stay in that tick-tock-free zone for a forever or two and pick up where I’d left off another day.
But eventually the tea got cold, the cake fragments left on the plates looked untidy and the café started filling up with more industrious lunchers. I followed Lesley and Jen out into the grey afternoon with my eyes on the chewing gum-decorated pavements. I was so glad I hadn’t told them anything about Nothing. If only I could rest more permanently in a nice, warm bath of denial myself.
That night I looked at the weather news from the States. My ‘home town’ (it had been over 40 years since I had lived there but still…) was completely frozen up in a ‘cold wave’ that closed the schools, lots of roads, the airport and was causing concern for electricity supplies. I pictured the wodge of arctic air moving like the Atlantic down over the Great Lakes, locking up Chicago, keeping the horses and cows in their barns down the length of Indiana and then reaching Kentucky, with its timber-framed houses designed for warmer days. People would suffer, some would die; that was clear. But the thought of those winter trees covered in snow and icicles was a thrilling image and a part of me wished that I was there to see the world shivering in a part of the American South which seldom gets to zero Centigrade. Would everyone feel more alive, crisped up, striding around their snow creations, dogs swivelling to bite the snow as it fell? And it seemed to me that the people I loved who still lived there were enclosed in a winter bubble. I envied them that. I would need to skype – but we would stick to weather-related conversation. Good, I thought, very good. I opened our front door and was met by an unusually clear sky. The moon was just over a sliver but riding high in the sky and the clarity of the air made its luminescence seem brighter than its phase warranted.
John loved to walk at night, especially if he had experienced a difficult day. Lately there had been a lot of those. The surgery was under-staffed and dependent on a series of locums. John did not like to talk about work when he wasn’t working but it was clear to me that some of his current edginess was definitely work-related. And maybe that classic 59-year-old thingy? His knowing that when his Big Birthday rolled around, he would be ushered into his 60s, with the undeniable ring of the seventh decade. Or was he even aware that the Big Six Oh had him in its range? It had been weeks since we’d had the kind of conversation that might let me know what was churning away inside his head. Maybe that was okay?
The house creaked away to itself when I shut the door on John’s receding back and the starry night. I’ve always liked being alone. I sat in the kitchen at the long table where almost everything was eaten, written or read in this house. Listening to the noise of the fridge demanding more power to keep itself nice and cold, the oil boiler burning up more refined petroleum to make the room bearably tepid – I was soothed by those Twenty First Century homely sounds. But scraping its fingers down the blackboard of my sudden irritability were the other, harder to explain house sounds: maybe the wood in the stairs getting hotter or colder? Perhaps the books in the back bedroom sinking into each other a little as they got older, more compact, more bored with sitting still? Possibly the absolutely invisible but clearly existent rats crawling right under the floor boards, looking for a route into warmth and food?
Then, of course, the phone joined in. With that really annoying ring tone that one of the twins was bored enough over Christmas to program into the landline receiver. It starts as a musical whisper, so quietly that normally we didn’t notice it until it started doing those piano glissandos up and down the imaginary keyboard, too fast, too loud. But tonight I heard the first tentative notes. Number withheld, I was informed by the phone’s screen. I pushed the button to answer it anyway, jabbing the key with far more force than was required. And of course, of course, I was met with silence. You know the moment: you suspect that a computer is whirring away somewhere, trying to spit out a recorded message ‘just for you’. But you can’t discount the possibility that someone you love (the twins, John’s mother?) is grasping the phone in hands nearly lifeless, trying to speak to ask for urgent assistance. Or maybe that someone who used to love you is ringing up just to hear your voice. So you hold on after your initial ‘Hello’, not saying any more but just waiting.
This time, luckily, I guess, there was nothing. A lot of silence. And a fury which wrapped its warming arms around my shoulders and made me shriek with incandescent rage. Somehow the phone got returned in one piece to its charging point but my feet were leaving the floor and hurtling me up the stairs before I’d stopped screaming. I was so angry that I couldn’t breathe. I’d been punched in the stomach so hard by screeching anguish that my diaphragm had seized up. Next thing I knew I was lying on our bed, scissor-kicking the duvet. Briefly I was aware at how fortuitous it was that John was still elsewhere.
Then, “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” spilled out of my mouth. It was definitely not a Four Weddings and A Funeral homage but it did have a frisson of internal shock value as I became aware that I was screaming out loud,loud. All those years of trying to be good parents, not shouting, no four letter words except the ones you could disguise in a hiss, meant that my voice proclaiming swear words at high volume seemed to echo around the house, leaving an embarrassed, tiny vibration behind.
Now, I know that some people let rip at the slightest fingernail breaking or disposable contact lens disappearing down the sink, let alone the computer failing to boot up or the Sky box deciding not to record the final 10 minutes of the football. But not me. I’m much more inclined to get generally grumpy for an extended period, frequently, mercifully, forgetting what sparked it all off. This storming-around-angry thing seemed kind of exhilarating. Lying on our crumpled bed, trying to decide whether I was too angry to cry or not, I could see the value of the melodrama. Even if I did think that, whatever was going on, there was definitely some over-the-top Method acting out happening in there with it all.
But truly I had no desire to think. I got under the duvet, slipped my trousers, socks, shirt and jumper off under the cover, smuggled them off the side of the bed and pulled the duvet up under my feet. I just wanted to disappear, wake up and maybe face knowing, on the other side of sleep, that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
A very boring period of time (but we won’t spend long on it, I promise)
The phone rang. I had finally worked out how to change the ring tone. Now it sounded horribly cute – some outlandish bird song. But at least it could be heard, right from the start.
“Hello, hen,” answered a gravelly male voice. Max, of course. Just the person I didn’t want to talk to. Inevitably.
“Hi, there, Max. How are you?” I was really desiring nothing less than a run-down of his latest travels. Max is a professional writer, with the emphasis on professional, one who sees himself as the soul of the creative set that likes to call this corner of Scotland its home. More than anything, Max has an astonishing ability to winkle fellowships, grants and travel assignments out of ever-shrinking arts budgets. No one knows what his secret is – but truly he has an unparalleled record of overseas travel assignments which result in various slim volumes and a good supply of panama hats.
“Ooh, it’s so-oo good to hear your voice, Deborah. Me, I’m absolutely grand. But how’s John? And those boys?” Was it transference or did Max have a undercurrent of some sadness in his voice? I wasn’t sure that I could welcome some one else’s grief with open arms.
“Oh, you know, Max, January goes on a bit, does it not? But we’re all alive and kicking, I guess. What’s new with you and yours?” Max usually has a lover and/or protégé ‘staying’ with him for a while. I seemed to have lost track of who was in state at the moment.
“Hum.” Long, pregnant pause followed. “You know, Deborah,” and his voice fell into that lower register of confidence-sharing, “something really awful has happened. Gabriel – you met him, didn’t you, at my Christmas party? Very tall, very handsome, a theatrical producer from Liberia? He came over for the Edinburgh Festival last summer and decided to stay on in Europe for a while. He had a grant from the British Council or something and was using the time to finish a multi-media performance piece he’d been collaborating on with someone in Paris.” (I was trying hard not to yawn audibly down the phone. Something awful? More likely, a tale of woe about love found and lost. Usually I found Max diverting if slightly inhuman in his artful literariness. But just now it was getting hard to stomach.) “However, he had to go back to Freetown in a massive hurry last week. His mother had taken ill suddenly and when he got there, she was dead. Ebola, they think. Have you heard of it?” Max’s tone was the least phoney I could remember. Did he sound scared? “And now Gabriel can’t come back to finish his piece. He’s due to read from the work in progress at an event in Glasgow at the Oran Mor next week but they won’t let him fly. He’s under quarantine, apparently. And he can’t get his mother buried. She’s apparently in some communal morgue.” The horror in Max’s voice was genuine, for sure. “It looks like this ebola is turning into an epidemic. Deborah, anyone in your or John’s circles who knows about these things?”
I was beginning to understand the uncharacteristic Max now. He was terrified that he might have been exposed to something deadly. And maybe he was right to be frightened. I’d never even heard of ebola until a week ago when The Guardian ran a colour magazine set of photos of body bags piling up in the street somewhere in west Africa. Perhaps I should have made more of it, like reading the words rather than just flipping past the dreich scenes. Why did black faces make it less shocking? Was I really the racist this suggested or was it just that ol’ familliar compassion fatigue?
I gave Max the phone number of a friend who worked in the pathology department of our local infirmary. She was the most likely person to have some info – and more importantly, she would dismiss him if she didn’t want to be his private wikipedia.
I brought the conversation to a close as quickly as I could. Normally Max would want a generous dose of gossip from my end but today he let me go without a complaint. I felt guilty and then annoyed with Max or maybe myself that I seemed to have so little to give. Or to care about anyone except myself.
For the past couple of weeks my world had shrivelled to the following:
Get up once John clears off to the surgery, 9 or so.
Sit around reading the two papers John had collected from the shop at some ungodly hour. (He was running the two miles there and back as part of his new fitness routine. Wearing a head torch, no less!) Read them cover to cover, only missing out the sports reports and the more boring bits of the business news.
Drink lots of coffee during the above.
Discover that I’d let the wood stove go out while sitting on my arse.
Get satisfyingly angry with the stove. Huff off to chop some kindling and collect some wood, fail to get the stove lit first time so try again and then clear up the mess made by having to take the un-burnt kindling out of the stove.
Feel so generally annoyed by the intransigence of material objects that I need a lie down to recover.
Around 3 notice that it’s getting dark. Rush around tidying the house a bit, washing up the breakfast dish (John’s) and our cups, so that it didn’t look like I’d spent the day doing nothing.
Go to Thornhill and buy some wine and maybe something for dinner.
Cook something or other for us to eat when John appeared.
Watch television or the iplayer on my computer while John viewed one of the zillion or so football matches he had recorded.
Go to bed as soon as possible after 9.30 (before then would have caused too much enquiry of the sort of: “Are you feeling all right, Debs?”)
How I wish I could have fast-forwarded through this time. Of course, when it was grinding on, I didn’t think of it as an era. It was just the flabby, wet and boring second half of winter. Four weeks, maybe two months. Certainly the daffodils, the Easter flowers my mother always called them, were up and shouting before I noticed them at all.
By then, the end of March, John was getting increasingly edgy with the ‘new’ me. I could see that he thought I was simply not coping very well with being retired while he was still working all the hours available.
Hence the following:
John (turning off the television with a decisive thumb gesture): “Deborah, we need to have a talk.”
Me: (lying on the sofa, headphones in, watching the BBC report on the Russians invading the Crimea. I’d been idly considering whether World War III was just around the corner. I felt very detached about the possibility. I couldn’t help wondering if I could pretend not to have heard him and just go on indulging in a little End of Days fantasy. Decided I couldn’t really. And couldn’t help but notice that John, my dear John, looked really tired. And sad.) “What’s up, Johnjohn?” (My snappy, fake jolly tone certainly wasn’t fooling me. Or John, I imagined. I kept my eyes on the laptop.)
John: “Will you please take those headphones out of your ears for a minute?” (This was uncharacteristically confrontational. And his voice was so quiet that I did as asked without pretending to be offended.) “Have you ordered the seeds for the veg garden yet? Isn’t it time to get started? I thought that now that you have all the time on your hands, you’d want to be making a start. I don’t think you’ve sowed any seeds yet, not even in the greenhouse. It’s not like you, Debs. What’s up?”
Me: (Yes, well, that’s the question. And why his asking should make me angry, I couldn’t really imagine. But there it was, a boiling mass of resentment – crazy, n’est pas? as I had told him nothing – that he hadn’t realised what was happening to me.) “I’ve been busy, John. You know, it is possible to have a life without going to work every day. Or haven’t you considered that?” (I looked over at him and felt the hopelessness of it all. When I told John – and of course, I would be doing that, soon – then I’ve have to deal with all his feelings, worries, the whole shed load of his concern – and disempowerment for me. How was that meant to help? And yet I loved him very much.)
John: “Hmmm. Well, time’s getting on, you know.”
His hand was moving towards the tv remote apparently on its own. He looked down, flicked another glance at me as I tidied away the computer and stood up. Then the football returned with a triumphant roar and I walked away upstairs to slide into sleep once more.
Oddly, the next morning something was different. I woke before John, around 6 am, and lay listening to the burn cascading through the garden. It had rained all through the night and was still chucking down heavy drops which hammered on the pvc edges of our windows. It was like sleeping in a tin shed or perhaps a really ancient canvas tent. It wasn’t altogether unpleasant and I tucked my toes into the creased up edge of the duvet and considered:
Why not get out of bed right now?
And put some cycling clothes on?
Contact lenses too, don’t forget, dozy cow, or you won’t be able to see a thing when the rain beads on your specs.
Or just lie in the bed and sink into the abyss of crap you’ve been lying in for such a long time?
I just couldn’t go with number 4 any more. I was so bored with the Angry Teenager I’d been living with that I would have to strangle her with her very frayed school tie if she didn’t get her shit together asap, terminal prognosis or not.
And then I felt the presence of the fellow in the bed beside me. It wasn’t that we hadn’t had sex for weeks and weeks. It was never like that for John and me. But it had been perfunctory and honestly I hadn’t even cared one way or another about any of it. But lust was stirring inside me now and with it came the faintest whiff of hope that change might be a possibility.
I reached out and found John’s warm arm. He was always a grand little heater. I snuggled inside that arm and felt it tightening around me. My uxorious darling was moving towards sex with me without a murmur of discontent about the early hour and I began, just began, to be delighted to make love with him all over again.
The astonishment on John’s face when I appeared in my cycling kit as he was tying his laces for his run made me laugh out loud.
“So, I suppose you think that the early morning is just for the men in this house?” I was surprising myself with my cheer. Maybe early morning sex was all that was needed to get me moving again.
“So you’re up for a race, are you?” John fiddled with his high viz jacket while I checked the pockets of mine for my clip-on lights.
“No way, On you go. I’ll be overtaking you before you know it. I wouldn’t want you to have a cardiac arrest trying to keep up with me.”
John patted my rump as I bent over my boots. It had been a long winter and perhaps it was really coming to its long-delayed end
You can’t always get what you want – for dummies
Swimming in the sea in April on the west coast of Scotland: even the thought of it divides the world neatly into two very unequal halves. The enormously larger group feels outraged enough at the suggestion to require a couple of whiskies just to settle their internal temperature control gauges. The second, more select group, consists chiefly of the proud owners of really good wet suits, boots, gloves, helmets, the lot. When I’m totally encased in black neoprene, I can go anywhere. Well, except walk from the car to the beach at Irvine without feeling like a complete twit.
April found me on a total fitness splurge. I was only four months behind the January good intentions lot. John encouraged it and cheerfully stalked the halls of sports equipment wholesalers while I stocked up on gear for hiking (go faster poles and new boots), pilates (inflatable ball, stretch bands, new trainers), cycling (new lights, new milometer, cooler helmet), yoga (mat, new leotards, leg warmers)…. Not all in a oner, of course, but over a fairly short space of time our spare room grew to resemble an untidy version of a school sports cupboard – for one.
I remembered what it was like when either of the twins expressed even a faint interest in a physical activity or sport. John was so hopeful of raising a child with the kind of focused interest he had nutured all through his childhood with sport. John had never been happier, so he told me, than playing football on a particularly wet Saturday morning in Bangor (apparently wet pitches are better in some fairly mysterious way). Neither of the boys ever developed quite the intense love affair with ball games that John hoped for; however, his passionate hope that one of their passing fancies might grow led him to buy them first-class kit from day one. Our shed had enough basketballs (complete with portable hoop and backboard), footballs (we had a permanent goal set up at the bottom of the garden), hurley sticks and sliotars, cricket bats and balls and so on – to service a community sports initiative. The boys enjoyed sport, sure, but I’d never really understood why they couldn’t just chase each other around the garden with a branch or perhaps a water pistol.
But I was getting it now. The pleasure of indulging in shopping that was so virtuous was an experience that I hadn’t ever had before when buying stuff for myself. And John was delighted to flash the credit card. Perhaps he was picturing a new, revised version of the woman he’d married all those years before. Or was it that he’d been really worried about me?
I didn’t really want to delve too hard into his motivations. You see, I still hadn’t told him about In fact, here we were, in the fourth month of The Year and I hadn’t told a soul. Face to face anyway. I had sent this little missive to Mariella Frostrup’s agony aunt column at The Observer:
I don’t mean to sound melodramatic but with very little warning, I’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness. It is likely that I will, in a year or so, start to become incapacitated and eventually unable to lead my life without major support. At the moment I have few, very minor symptoms and actually feel quite well physically. I am told that I may well die within a few months or so of my condition deteriorating. I am currently 65 years old and have never experienced any serious medical issues until this nuclear bomb blew up in my life over the Christmas holidays.
So far, I haven’t told anyone about my situation. I am currently lying to my family and friends by not sharing this information. But I don’t want to tell them. And although I can see good reasons for letting folk know what’s in front of me, and its impact on them, I can’t bear to open the can of worms marked ‘invalid’ until I really have to.
Am I behaving selfishly? Should I put aside my strong impulse to keep this private? I have retired from my career and have no dependents. Can I justify keeping this information close for now? Or do I need to let everyone know the situation before things take a turn for the worse?
The day I emailed this to Mariella, 15 April, the news was full of the reported kidnapping of over 200 girls from their Physics final exam in Chibok, Nigeria. Boko Haram bundled the girls into trucks, set fire to lots of houses in the village and the school itself, and disappeared back to one of its strongholds somewhere in the north of the country. Photographs of weeping parents accompanied the initial news. Apparently the school had only opened on that day after shutting for four weeks due to security concerns.
I phoned Jen while I sat at the kitchen table with The Guardian spread out in front of me. Blurry pictures (had someone had a mobile phone pointed at the truck which took their daughter away? Or was it the kidnappers promoting their audacity to the world at large? I felt sick considering either option.)
“…..impossible, isn’t it, to imagine? But, you know, shit happens.” Jen, as usual, could be eerily relaxed about the misfortunes of others. Sometimes single-mindedness brings added benefits, I thought edgily. I kept my voice carefully under control.
“But Jen, seriously, what would happen if a truck or two turned up at Dunscore Primary and loaded all the girls up, taking them away to who knows where? Surely it would be a national emergency to make sure those girls were found and returned home? Road blocks, helicopters, every parent on the road searching frantically. Do you think the Nigerian parents feel any different than you or I would if our kids were stolen in that way?”
There was a measured silence from the phone before Jen spoke. I clearly had her attention now. “Debs, of course, this is terrible. But who knows what is really going on there? You know, a hundred years ago we wouldn’t have heard anything about this until it was all over – or maybe not even then.”
I recognised, although I didn’t enjoy it, the resentful shade to Jen’s voice. She did not expect to have this sort of conversation with me first thing on a Tuesday And she’d probably not even had a proper cup of coffee yet. I, on the other hand, in line with my keep fit routine, had already been to Sanquhar for an early swim and was at least two cups of coffee ahead of her. And she was right. Sometimes the chaos and horror of the world felt like the result of too much information. And yet….. there had to be the possibility of making some sense out of our shared humanity: Jen and me and a 14-year-old girl from a village whose name I will never remember – and all the others separated from me by skin and miles.
“You’re right, of course, Jen. Anyway, what have you been up to lately? Long time, no speak.” And just like a streak of smoke, the moment of shared concern for others, so very far away, receded into nothingness. What was to be gained by my bringing both of us down? Would it accelerate the chance of rescue for those hundred or more wee girls? Not by the width of a fast-fading hope. But knowing that made me feel tainted by a shame which felt close to paralysing my self-interest.
I finished the call, instantly losing any recollection of Jen and her little world’s affairs. If I could have clawed back my email to the agony aunt, somehow traded off my anxiety about my secretive behaviour against the real and present suffering of even one little Nigerian girl, I would have done it at that instant, just to remove the selfish smell which hung around my kitchen like over-cooked kale.
When had the world last made sense? I looked around at my warm and well-equipped room, its patio doors hardly ever locked as our little village was no magnet for entrepreneurial house burglars. I couldn’t imagine what I had done to deserve both my good fortune and my NAA fate. And maybe it was the same for the whole chaotic world of human beings – an amalgam of bored happiness and sharpened, excruciating suffering.
Luckily I was saved from my maunderings by my mobile phone’s text trumpet. I grabbed it and felt its little body writhe energetically in my hand. Claudia’s name appeared on the screen. How unlikely was that? Texts from California tend to be more expensive than a quick skype.
Claudia’s arrival, the day after her surprising text from London, was the first time in a decade for her to make it to Scotland. John and I had visited her in California with the twins about five years ago, when they were still undergraduates and willing to spend holidays with parents if it included beach time. At that time Claudia had been involved in a Silicon Valley start-up that seemed to be giving her lots of money and almost no ‘free’ time. I knew that she had managed to extricate herself after several of those kind of years, luckily with lots of cash in the pocket. Now she was back to her first love, making beautiful pots and vases and bowls and cups. Slipware was her obsession now. I had seen photos of some of her work but not the real thing, not since her first efforts when we were at school in Louisville, messing around in the ceramics studio after school.
It turned out that a gallery in London was interested in giving her a solo show. Nothing settled yet but it had meant that Claudia had been in London for a few days, looking at art, talking pottery and getting wet.
And now she had come to Scotland to see us/me. She was sitting at our kitchen table, drinking black coffee and looking out at the green and empty world.
# END OF EXTRACT