They say you are what you eat and now that I’m dying I know this is the solid truth. Actually, it’s not only a solid truth – it’s a gelid one as well. It’s also a sloppy, tacky, congealed reality. It’s a pink blubbery blancmange of an evidence and a stringy gruel of proof. It’s a gristly confirmation which swells like a filament of meat caught between teeth. Not, you understand, that I’ve had my own teeth for years now, it’s just that recently I’ve found myself dreaming of teeth, of what it’s like to have your own teeth. Dreaming of having teeth again. Anyway – you are what you eat: in my case, this hospital slurry, which seems to’ve been put together – insofar as it’s cooked at all – for the express purpose of sliding through us near-cadavers as fast as possible.
`No need to give them anything but swill,’ I can hear a pushy lack-of-nutritionist proclaim (funny how the profession attracts quite so many anorexics) at this meeting or that case conference; `they’re eating up half the budget of the NHS already – can that be right?’ No, maybe not, but I’ve paid my fucking taxes, or at least I hope that ridiculous little man Weintraub has by now.
The other thing about this slick cuisine is, natch, that it doesn’t repeat on you. Or rather, neither its odour nor its substance is likely to rise up in the faces of those poor overworked nurses. Good thing. We seldom get cheese – never smoked fish. Eggs are boiled to shit. Hard ovals of desiccated shit. No pickles. No rich sauces. No onions and emphatically no garlic. Not that I really liked such food when I was well, it’s just that now, now that I’m dying, I realise that this capacity certain foodstuffs exhibit of reappearing in your mouth, spontaneously, hours after they’ve been consumed, is very much a sign of life. Life in its very repetitiousness. Life going on. I could murder for a shmaltz – now that I know I’m definitely going to die. After my teeth were taken out, in the mid-sixties – ’63, ’64, weird not to remember – I thought that I’d become immortal. I’d always assumed that I’d die with my teeth because they were so fucking painful. Anything that painful – I unreasoned – even if it didn’t kill you itself, would surely be the end of you when it went. You’d die of bliss. But now, teeth or not, I’m dying.
I’m absolutely certain that I’m going to die because half and hour ago nice Mr Khan, the clinical psychologist attached to the ward, came and told me I was. Some wiseass once said that the miracle of life was that we all might die at any minute – but that we live as if we were immortal. I wish I could get this wiseass by his scrawny throat and throttle his life right out of him. Did he have any idea what it’s like when you know the hour of your own death? And when it’s announced to you thus: `Erm – ah. I understand, Ms Bloom, that Dr Steel spoke to you this morning?’
`Yes, he did.’ I put my crappy women’s mag to one side, I show my dentures to the nervous Mr Khan. I’m being a good little cancer-ridden old lady. So easy to be like this when you don’t have any legs. Legs make men think about pussy – even old pussy; and no one has legs in bed – not unless you’re in there with them.
`Did he have a word about palliative care?’
`About giving me palliative care? Yes he did, thank you.’ I’m still giving Mr Khan the glad eye but it’s beginning to dim slightly, because let’s face it, affirmative action or not, it’s very difficult to see what the point of puffed-up Mr Khan really is. Sure, he’s perfected that clever little Uriah Heep act which makes him appear ever so ‘umble to his clients and employers, but my teeth aren’t simply long – they’re fucking eternal! And I know this covers up a typical subcontinental mummy’s boy, a puling bully who lords it over the womenfolk when he gets home from a hard day talking crap to the dying.
`I’m sorry there isn’t anything more that we can do for you … I can … do for you. Are you a religious person, Ms Bloom?’
`No, no I’m sorry.’
`You’re sorry?’ He’s a fat thing, he hasn’t got a hungry cancer chomping up his breasts, breasts which jiggle most unpleasantly inside his pressed, near see-through, synthetic shirt. Why do they always wear translucent shirts, these people who have everything to hide?
`Sorry that you’re labouring under the delusion you’ve helped me at all. Done anything for me whatsoever.’ And I pick up my abandoned Woman’s Realm, get back to reading recipes I’ll never make, ever, for sure now. Picking apart knitting patterns in my mind.
When I’ve absorbed another recipe for banana flapjacks – perhaps the two hundredth of my life so far – I look up to see that Mr Khan is still there. Having failed with what he imagines to be a sympathetic approach, and rising to my rebuff, he adopts a more scientific one: `We – or rather I – wondered whether you might be able to help us, then?’
`With what?’ I can’t believe this shlemiel.
`We’re doing a study – a survey of patients … of terminal patients” – he’s squeezed it out at last, that terminal `terminal’, popped it like a cyanide capsule into the mouth of the conversation – `attitudes.’
`Attitudes to what?’ Outside, on Grafton Way, I can hear the traffic whooping and growling. When I came into the hospital this time for the laughable operation (a lumpectomy – can you believe they really call it that? It’s like dubbing a heart transplant a `ticker swap’), it was such a relief to get out of the city, into a kind of refuge, but now I understand it’s no refuge at all. There ought to be a sanctuary inside the hospital where patients can hide from Khan and his ilk.
`To, erm … to their quality of life.’ He’s got it out now and he’s obscurely pleased; there’s a thin smile seaming his stuffed, fat face.
`Let me get this straight, you’re asking people who’re dying what their quality of life is?’
`Ye-es, that’s it. I have a survey sheet … a questionnaire, if you’d like to see it?’
`What do you expect to discover?’ My tone begins sharp but steady, but as I enunciate the hated words the pitch rises, the words fray and shred. `That the quality of a life gets better the nearer a cancer patient gets to death? Oh my fucking Christ I’m going to die. I can’t stand it I’m gonna die. Not me! Oh God-ohgod-ohgog-jeezus-ogod-og –’ And here I go, choking into incoherent terror, the fa”ade demolished by sledgehammer sobs. I moan and I pule and I groan and saliva loops from my slack jaws. It’s a most satisfying performance, I sense through the fog- for Mr Khan. After all, he’s a trained grief counsellor – and here’s plenty of grief. Sacks of it. But no – he can’t cope, he’s up and waddling off in the direction of the nurses’ station while I tear up the Woman’s Realm, lay waste to the paper Little England, and scream and cry.
I’ve always had a talent for hysteria, for plunging over the black edge of a mood, but this black edge is so much bigger. It’s a Niagara, sucking into itself the whole water of my life. I feel like a stroke victim must – half of my world is gone. Half of that plastic water jug; half of that box of Kleenex; half of that fucking already half-eaten Battenberg cake which my junky daughter brought me yesterday afternoon; half of that crumpled tissue; that Staedtler HB pencil; that dust mote. For the first time in my life I can feel, utterly and incontrovertibly, what it’s like not to be me. What it’s like to be me feeling not me. It’s so lonely. I’m so fucking lonely. Who would’ve thought that me, who’s led a life that has known so much bloody loneliness, now has to face the solitude of death? I’m sobbed by racks. Oh my self – why hast thou abandoned me?
Sister Smith, one of those West Indian women of landmass bulk, who could be any age between thirty and sixty, rips me into my plastic cocoon with her arms arching like leaping seals, then sits down heavily near my mutilated breast. She’s already got the unputdownable beaker, the easy-to-swallow capsule. `Here,’ she says – and I take the Valium. I’ve no problem with that; after all, I’ve taken a raft of the things thus far – why stop now? In the seventies, when I patrolled daily with depression’s black guard dog, I used to pass by suburban newsagents, and seeing those sweetie-dispensers outside (you know the ones – ten pence for some gum and a plastic charm) I’d imagine them full of five-, ten-, even twenty-milligram Valiums. Go in, and the old stick behind the counter – hair greased straight back, cigarette fuming in his face – might say, `Bad news today, Mrs Yaws, very bad news. Bomb in a pub in Guildford, many dead. Scenes of terrible carnage. Senseless slaughter. Unspeakably awful. Unimaginably evil. You’ll be wanting a Valium with your Guardian?’
`There, love,’ says Sister Smith, `there you go.’
Gulp! I can feel her yellow-tinged, calloused palm through the brushed cotton of my nightie. A curious confusion of senses – and this alone serves to calm me, because it’s only with blacks that I imagine I can feel their colour. What could whiteness feel like? A stupid colourlessness of indifference, I daresay. But the blacks – whom I touch always unwillingly – they feel black, or yellow, or brown, or in the case of the old man I tried to comfort after he’d been knocked down by a car outside John Lewis’s on the Finchley Road – grey. He felt grey.
`I have to say, Mr Khan’s not the best clinical psychologist we have here at the hospital, y’know.’
`I-I know. Believe me – I know. Ogodogodogod …’ I would certainly like to hug Sister Smith. She’s built to hug me, she’s big enough to hug me. My mother was too petite to give me a proper hug once I was seven – not that she would’ve wanted to, for fear of rucking up her perfect bodice. And as for my father – I never called him Daddy; I never called him anything – he’d lift me up under my arms and swing me, but only as if intent on letting go.
`He really is well-meaning … but no one can find the right words exactly … `
No, or even fucking vaguely, or so it seems. Yes, I should like to be hugged by Sister Smith and feel her great reef of bosom support my shattered, decaying one … Full fathom five thy excised lump lies … I should like her yellow palms on my sallow shoulders. I should like to smell the coconut oil on her skin, the PH-balanced conditioner in her crinkly hair, but this would not be a good idea.
I’m sitting on the veranda of the old house in Huntingdon, Long Island, which we had, briefly, when I was a child. I’m sitting on the lap of a woman as solid as Sister Smith and as black and sweet-smelling. The sun is hot then cool on my neck as Betty plaits my long, blonde hair. Even then it was the best thing about me. Can she be doing anything as obvious as humming a hymn? Yes, she is. She’s a religious woman – although when she did house-cleaning it would be the blues. `Titanic Man’ for the bathroom, `St Louis’ for the kitchen. She’s doing my hair in a French plait, up and over and through. Hairy pastry. And while she plaits I’m kissing her. The softest and lightest of kisses on her neck and on her collarbone where it rises from her house dress. I’m being scrupulous with these kisses, they’re really air kisses, perturbations of the atmosphere immediately above Betty, because I know – or I think I know – that this irritates her. But I want to kiss Betty because I love her. No, not love her – she’s my world. Like all loving adult carers of small children, she has defined the world itself for me. My world is Betty – not the earth. Things can be assimilated in as much as they conform – or diverge – from this Bettyness.
Yes, I’m kissing Betty and I’m smelling Betty and I’m even subtly rubbing a bit of Betty’s old house dress in between my thumb and finger – because she’s my security blanket too – when I’m torn from her and deposited hard on the boards. `You bad girl! You bad, bad girl! You never ever do this again. Never. Do you understand me? Do you!’ One slap cross my tiny face, then back, then a third. My mother slapped me the way British actors playing Gestapo officers were later to slap their interrogation victims – but she wasn’t pretending. Her diamond ring drew my blood and became this little girl’s worst enemy. It was so out of proportion – the colossal violence from this petite, blonde woman – that Betty herself was stunned, left half-risen from the old rocker, her face a racist caricature of minstrel shock.
I never kissed Betty again. She stayed with us until I was fifteen – but I never touched her again. We would talk and I would confide and she would sympathise – but we both knew we could never touch each other ever again; that for me black flesh was an anathema. An evil substance. I cannot touch black people – unless I have to. How unfair that they may have to touch me. I do so hope I’m unconscious before it happens. And I find myself saying to Sister Smith, `Will I know it when I die?
`Hush now,’ Sister Smith puts a hand up and dabs at my dregs of hair – black women, blonde hair, my whole life has been wrapped in this skein – but draws back when she senses me stiffen. `Y’know, you’re not bein’ good to yourself, girl – Lily. Dr Steel, he means well, but he’s – how can I put it now – he takes a rather technical view of these things. He doesn’t explain so well – did he say what you should be expecting?’
`He said that this time they couldn’t get all the tumour, that it had hypo- hypo –’
`Hypostasised, yes, well, that jus’ means it’s spread, you see.’
‘Anyway – that we could go on with chemo, with the ray gun, with a dancing shaman if I liked, but that he thought … he thought …’
`That there was no point now. That it would be better to accept it an’ die with a little dignity – he said that?’
`Well, he’s nothin’ if not dependable like that, but he’s not a believer, y’know, he doesn’t have no saviour so he can’t comfort himself – poor man.’
Saviour. That’s done it. Sister Smith is undoubtedly one of the rocks the Church is built upon. Although in her case it’s probably a small revivalist chapel. I can see the tiny building in my mind’s eye, actually shaking as Sister Smith and her sisters slam out the gospels. I notice now what I should’ve before – that wedged in the brown ravine of her cleavage is a gold cross. Her saviour must be tiny, it occurs to me – probably because my sardonic voice is the one that will be silenced last – if this is big enough to nail him up on. `Thank you, Sister – but I’m not religious.’ It’s probably the most sisterly thing I’ve said in years – which is how long since I’ve had cause to thank my own.
`That’s all right, Mrs Bloom, there’s a special place with Our Lord for the Israelites, y’know –’
`I’m not Jewish, Sister.’
`I’m sorry – I’d thought … the name …’ She wanted to say the nose – they all do.
`I was married to Mr Bloom, for a time.’ The deception comes easily enough – since she made the initial mistake. `No, I’m not religious – I don’t believe in an afterlife, I don’t believe in Big Cosy Daddy, waiting to swing me up into the sky. When I die – I’ll rot. That’s all, Sister – that’s all.’
For a second I’m proud of this bravado, then she says, `Y’know, Mrs Bloom, not all of the exoteric symbolism of Christianity should be taken literally. I can understand you’ll not be wanting to see the minister, but Mr Khan – ‘
`Fuck Mr Khan.’
`Mrs Bloom –’
`Fuck him, fuck him, I don’t wanna see him – don’ wanna see anybody – ‘And here I go again; the little stopper of pride has popped out of my gullet and a great foaming splurge of self-pity froths out in a spasmodic series of gulps, seagull cries, tears and then globs of white bile which have the ministering fundamentalist reaching for a cardboard kidney dish. Why shape them like kidneys – why not like a heart, or a lung, or a severed breast?
She leaves me after threatening me with the cold Steel, and I relapse into the memento mori nightmare which is dying. Half of everything gone – the flesh peeled back and the skull of things finally, irrevocably, exposed to view. I’m so shocked. You wouldn’t credit it that I’ve been feeling the lump for two years now, that I’m so familiar with it I’ve even given it a baby name. Minxie, I call her – because she’s going to annihilate me – the little minx. Yup, two years of the pet name, and then Steel’s sharp pal cut Minxie out. But when the stitches were removed from under my breast and I had the courage to examine it, I found Minxie still there and bigger than ever. I think.
Before I knew I had cancer I was seriously frightened that I would die of it. Die like my own mean little mother, winnowed out by it until I was a wheezing grey cadaver, literally a mummy. Everyone I talked to, everything I read, everywhere I turned, I heard that smoking causes it – but I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop and I couldn’t stop and I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t fucking stop. I couldn’t stop when my lungs felt like they were full of napalm – that’s what they felt like. They were napalming the Viet Cong – and I was napalming my lungs with Camels, with Winstons, with Marlboros, even with – when I was truly desperate – British cigarettes, with English fags. They were dropping Agent Orange on the forests – and I felt like I was coughing the shit up.
Dr Bridge, one of my second husband’s perennial squeezes. A dry thing. It must’ve been dusty when they did it together – Yaws himself being such a dry stick. A dry shit. Any old shit on a kerbstone – that was David Yaws. Pass him by every city block. If only I had. Anyway this Bridge – Virginia Bridge, no less – she’d park up her ridiculously well-kept Morris Traveller, a silly little half-timbered car to go with her silly little half-timbered house, and come up to the bedroom where I lay drowning in my own phlegm. Then she’d sound me with her smooth, Atrixo-creamed hands, while speaking to me with her dry English accent, and say, `Lily, really, I mean to say, you can’t expect me to go on treating you for chronic bronchitis if you aren’t prepared to give up smoking. I mean, it’s not as if you don’t know the facts …’
I couldn’t listen to her. I was feverish, I was in pain – and she still wanted to chafe with my husband. Did she come to the house in order to speculate as well as employ her speculum? About what Yaws and I didn’t do together? Imagining Yaws’s and my daughters as possible versions of kids she might’ve had with him? I can believe that. She had a crippled husband. Paralysed from the waist down. Lucky for Virginia it wasn’t from the waist up. Anyway, I lay there and watched as black-and-white documentary clips of the era showing baboons with masks lashed on to their muzzles, forcing them to smoke, spooled behind my eyes. Give it up. I couldn’t – I’d rather die. Cigarettes were the best friends I’d ever had. More reliable than liquor, comforting – but not fattening. I’d sooner die.
Like the teeth, though – I had a fateful relationship with the unlucky Luckys. More than this, as I looked at Virginia’s equine teeth (how could she keep such tent pegs clean?), it occurred to me that it didn’t have to be my life on the line, someone else’s might do as well. Like Virginia’s. I closed my eyes tighter still – `… it’s an addiction like any other, Lily, it will take a few days …’ – and willed Virginia Bridge to die: O Great White Spirit, if I give up smoking will you take this woman in my stead? Yup, it did. She died only a couple of years later, and let me tell you I was sorely tempted to take it up again. Only kidding. By then I had the anxiety even worse. Every year throughout the sixties, more and more evidence kept coming out about smoking. I felt as if all my life I’d been driving towards an intersection, while Death was speeding down the main road, the two of us on a collision course. Really I felt no better when I’d given up. I had about a motorway’s worth of tar to cough up, then I realised that I’d smoked so much that it was more than likely too late already. It was after-the-bloody-hemlock time. I began to refer to any discussion of cancer as being `a self-fulfilling prophecy’.
A cigarette would be good now, though. Good here in an antiseptic ward. Blue smoke goes well with white linen. We may all live soapy, light-musical lives, but every woman has the right to die as Bette Davis.
A self-fulfilling prophecy. Nice, ringing phrase that – and I’ve always been something of a phrase-maker. I was a designer by training, not that I ever designed much of consequence except for the cap of a pen which has since been sucked by a billion mouths. It was a unique cap – they were generic mouths. That’s the way I look at it. Still, designing is a self-fulfilling prophecy – if it’s done right. But the thing about this particular self-fulfilling prophecy – death by cancer – was that the very articulation of the prophecy was bound to induce cancerous anxiety. Every time I said it, I knew it would come true. The self-fulfilling prophecy was itself a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even so, I was surprised to be diagnosed – funny, yeah? Real amusing.
I’d also said to the girls, who grew up with my dark moods, `At least we can be miserable in good surroundings.’ (Miserable because their father had left us; miserable because he hadn’t paid the utility bills so we had no heat or light or telephone; miserable because I couldn’t stop crying; miserable because I couldn’t find my keys.) At least we can be miserable in good surroundings – ha! What a fool I was – I got it the wrong way round; I should’ve said good in miserable surroundings – that would’ve been the right way to carry on. Maybe if I’d concentrated on doing that I wouldn’t find myself so fucking lacking in stoicism now, so scared of this pain, so sick of this nausea.
They give me drugs for the nausea – but they make me feel sick. Perhaps they’ll give me still more. Yeah – they’ll do that. They’ll load me up with pills until I’ll find myself cramming some into my mouth while I’m actually hurling others out. Ha-ha. Here comes Dr Steel, tripping over the swirly lino, in between the mobile biers. He wears a white coat which although lovingly cleaned and pressed (by Mrs Steel?) has been imperfectly dry-folded, so that the thick cotton forms a series of rigid, square panels. It makes him look like he’s wearing a peculiar tabard. St George, sneaking into the ward to do battle with the tumour dragon … `Hello, Doctor.’
`Ms Bloom, your daughters are here to see you.’
`Both of them.’ I wonder which one it is he so disapproves of – either would be worthy of it. `But before they come through I wanted to have a word with you about the future.’
`You mean the lack of one – for me.’
`Look, I know I didn’t express myself terribly well this morning, I’m afraid that side of things isn’t my forte …’ No, I can guess that too. I think Steel is one of those doctors who doctors because he loves the disease, not the patient. Yeah, he loves the disease. He likes to look at microscope slides that show slivers cut from interesting cancers. He likes the surprisingly vivid colours and the complex whorls of tissue. Indeed, in his more reflective moments he’s subject to philosophising on the nature of cancer. He expatiates on the fact that cancer was unknown in the ancient world, that it seems to have arisen at the same time as human reason itself emerged from the darkness. After a couple of glasses of a good single malt, he’s probably been known to hazard that the peculiar morphology of certain cancers may be a function of their being, in reality, tiny cellular models of the Copernican universe itself! ‘… it’s never easy to tell somebody that there’s nothing much we can do.’
`I feel for you – truly I do.’
`Ms Bloom – this isn’t helping. You can stay here at UCH if you wish – although I know you’re as aware as I am that the bed is needed. Or I understand from Mr Khan that a bed could be made available for you at St Barnabas’s –’
`Yes, the hospice.’
`In Muswell Hill?’
`I believe so.’
`I’m not dying in Muswell Hill – I wouldn’t even go shopping in Muswell Hill. I want to go home.’
`Or, you can go home. Can your daughters arrange for nursing? You appreciate it will need to be round the clock?’ Or, or, or – but you note: no either.
`One of them can.’
`That would be Charlotte, would it?’
`I can’t see Natasha organising anything much – can you?’
`Erm, no, maybe not.’ He’s writing stuff down on a clipboard with a Bic Fine, gathering the panels of his virginal tabard about him. He’s beautifully shaved, Dr Steel, marvellously groomed. When he gets cancer – and he must, eventually, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy – it will be a nice orderly one, a tiny tumour in his brain which will simply push down on a vital artery, like a light switch, and turn him off. Leaving his clothes all neatly pressed and his body unsullied.
Did he go? People are always doing that now – they don’t say goodbye to me, they just leave. I guess they think all conversations with me are now intrinsically valedictory – no need to say goodbye to the old bat, she’s already gone. And it’s true – I do feel detached. I feel detached the way I did in the months of dropsical pregnancy that led up to David and Charlotte and Natasha. At the time I thought it peculiar – that I seemed to be absenting myself while these very important guests were arriving for life’s party – but now I see it’s all connected, there’s a compensatory arrangement – arrivals and departures. Terminal life.
I suppose I must’ve slipped into unconsciousness for a couple of minutes, because when the girls arrive they wake me with their bickering.
`I don’t mind giving you the money – I just don’t want any crap about a loan.’
`But I’ll pay it back.’ This wheedling voice is naturally sonorous and beautiful.
`No you won’t, you never do.’ This reasonable, mature tone is strangulated by class.
`I will – I’m gettin’ a job.’ This mockney is so wrong.
`A job? You?’ This hauteur is entirely believable.
`At the dogs – Hackney Dogs.’ Hackney – how utterly unsuitable for this, this …
… vision of a thing. She’s beautiful all right – my Natasha. She ought to be in elbow-length white gloves and writing on her dance card with a silver propelling pencil. Instead she’s got the sleeves of a black cashmere cardigan pulled down to her wrists. I wish she’d shoot up in the soles of her feet. Her black hair looks as if its been cut with pinking shears. Her blue eyes have kohl round them, obscuring blacker circles. She’s stoned – of course. Her pupils blighted points in each wilted iris. She’s an inch or so taller than I used to be – five-eleven, I guess – but Natasha is coat-hanger thin. The last time I saw her naked I could count all of her ribs. They should’ve given her a fucking mastectomy – she’d never’ve noticed. Still, she’s riding on her cheekbones, my youngest. Her cheekbones and her charm. How can anyone with that generous a mouth be so ungiving? It doesn’t matter, though, because it isn’t Natty’s place in life to give – she’s a taker. She’ll take any man’s heart, or wallet, and nowadays his credit cards and mobile phone too. Yup, I wonder if it’s this ability she has – to solicit the answer `Yes’ before she’s even posed the question – that has made her so incapable of resisting her own inner voices, her own charming demons. `Have some heroin, Natty?’ they sweet-talk her; and she replies, `Sure, why not?’ She says she’s a painter – and it’s true that she went to art school. Unfortunately, she’s not well-to-do enough to be one of those girls-who-paint, so she has to be a woman who daubs on walls. She was doing a `Muriel’ – as she terms it – for some community centre, but judging from the bicker that’s history.
`The dogs, how suitable,’ says Charlotte. `It’ll be easy for you to get there, you know the way already.’
`Oh fuck off, you materialist bitch. If you don’t want to lend me twenty quid – don’t. Spend it on a pedicure, or a massage. Go and get your bourgeois bum sluiced out at the Sanctuary – see if I fucking care.’
`Twenty pounds is quite a lot of money.’ How like Charlotte to say `twenty pounds’ like that. Deadpan. She knows the value of the words that are money. I peel up an eyelid to regard them both. Natty is standing by the sharply arched triptych of mouldering Gothic window. My bed’s in a bay – I’m in abeyance. It suits her – the combination of grime and the ecclesiastical. It’s easy to imagine her as the Madonna of grunge. Charlotte has taken Dr Steel’s place on the chair by the bedside table. She’s brought flowers and a bottle of barley water. I asked her for the barley water yesterday afternoon when this was what I desired more than anything else in the world; more than light, more than life, more than love. That was yesterday afternoon – now I’d sooner vomit again than drink the muck.
It’s a bit like Charlotte, the barley water – both are things the anticipation of which far surpasses their actuality. No, worse than that – both are things you only want when they aren’t there. Charlotte is one of those women – she is a woman, not a girl, although she’s only thirty as against Natty’s arrested twenty-seven – who make it their business to maximise what nature has given them. She’s a big, blonde, lumpy thing, like me. Sometimes she reminds me so much of the gaucheness of my own youth that I can hardly bear it. Yup, she looks like me: five-ten, carrying at least a hundred and fifty pounds; big, dirigible tits, still firm; high hips; thick hair. A no-messing, big, blonde woman. She’d be able to carry it off – just as I did – given the nose, but she doesn’t have the nose, not the prominent keel that has guided me through life’s seas. Oh no. Where it should’ve been sunk is her father’s little blob, David Yaws’s button nose. `Retrouss’‘, his mother used to call it. `Porcine is what you mean,’ I’d reply.
So, she’s got Yaws’s nose and the rest of his face too. At times like these, as I bleary at her, it looks to me as if a snapshot of Yaws’s face has been Scotch-taped on to hers. It might seem wrong of me to dislike my elder daughter on the grounds of her close resemblance to her father, but hell, it’ll do. What other grounds should I dislike her on? That she’s taken the place of the brother who died before she was born? Yeah – that’ll do fine too. How about the fact that she’s precise, neat and efficient – all those things I never managed. Mm – complementary, I’d say. Poor Charlotte, with her middle-aged, middle-class, quintessentially English face, all scrunched up with the effort of dealing simultaneously with her junky sister and her dying mother. Lucky she has Mr Elvers to rely on. Not that her husband is in evidence – he’ll be in the day room using the payphone, or his mobile phone, or leaning out the window so he can shout instructions to passers-by in the street. He’s nothing if not communicative, our Mr Elvers.
`She’s awake, Natty, be quiet now.’
`I didn’t say any –’
`Girls? Is that my girls?’
`We’re here, Mum.’ Charlotte leans forward and takes my hand, swollen with arthritis, in hers – which is merely swollen.
`Is that you, Charlie?’ I’m cramming as much wavering sincerity into this as I can.
`Yes, Mum, it’s me.’
`Then why’ve you got a snapshot of your fucking father taped on your face?’
Charlotte recoils, Natty laughs. `All right there, Mumu? Still wisecracking, are we?’ She leans down and plants a kiss on my mouth which is more like a blow.
`Mother!’ Charlie exclaims – she’s always chosen to regard my hatred of her paternity as a mischievous bit of play-acting. `Dr Steel has had a talk with us both.’ And now I know the game is up. While it was only the doctors, the nurses, the Mr Khans who knew, it couldn’t be true. It was a messy but implausible fact – to be whisked away in a cardboard kidney dish. But now Charlie knows, efficient Charlie, well – my bones might as well already be being pulverised in that cremulator. I bet as Steel and she talked she was taking notes in her Filofax, under neatly underlined headings: Death certificate; Undertakers; Funeral. Dusted and done – that’s Charlie.
`My baby.’ I open my arms and somehow she manages to curl her near-six feet of limbs into my embrace. I can smell the henna in her hair and feel the coarseness of it against my sallow cheek, but she feels good, feels like my baby. When she’s my baby – I’m hers. It’s like that with the youngest child – for their whole life they make you feel like the youngest. I can never see any of David Yaws in her at all.
`D’you wanna go homey, Mumu?’
`It’s shitty in here, Natty – the food’s shit, the decor’s shit; and my dear – the people.’
`You go home, Mumu. I’ll come with and look after you, promise.’
`I thought you had a new job?’ Charlotte says.
Natasha rears up. `I do – but what’s more important, eh? Making money or looking after your dying mother, hmm? No – don’t answer that.’
`There are practicalities to consider’ – Charlotte was born to say things like this. `Mum will need proper nursing. I assumed you’d want to go back to the flat, Mum, so Richard’s arranging for nursing cover and I’ve sent Molly round to clean it up – OK?’
`I guess so.’ Guess so only because Molly – Charlie and Richard’s Filipino factotum – has different ideas about cleaning to me.
`Now Mum – you can’t be ill in a messy house.’
`I’ve been ill in it these last two years; what you mean is I can’t die in a messy house. Go on, say it. Messy-messy-messy. Die-die-die.’
`Mu-um!’ they chorus; and both are at one with this: the continual need to bring up Mummy, admonish Mummy. What will they do when I’m gone? There won’t even be this to hold them together.
But it’s good to keep up the contemptuous, dismissive, cynical pose – it keeps the fear at bay. I don’t want to break down in front of them, not now. There’ll be plenty of time for that later.
`Dr Bowen – the senior registrar – she’s doing your discharge now.’
`It won’t be the first time.’
`She’s had to deal with a fair few of my discharges recently.’
`Oh Mother, really!’ I’m really, really, really, actually sick and tired of hearing that `really’. My life really might be worth fighting for if I could be certain that after they’d burnt out my remaining hair with their radiation and poisoned me with their drugs, no one would never ever say `really’ in that tone again, within my earshot. But Natty doesn’t say `really’ – she wouldn’t be so crass. She laughs instead. She’s an earthy soul, my Natty. A farter and a laugher. Mind you, washed and groomed and suited and booted, Natasha looks as if she shits chocolate ice cream; whereas poor old Charlie only ever looks like she thinks she does. `Richard will hang on and we’ll drive you back in a bit – he’s got the Merc.’
`I’ll come too, Mumu. I’ll make you your favourite snack of the moment when we get there.’
`Double-chocolate-fudge goody in that case.’ And while I sink back into the pillows (incidentally, the one good thing about modern British hospitals – good, big, clean, nicely plumped pillows; if it weren’t for them this joint really would be the bed and breakfast of the soul), the two of them begin gathering up my pathetic little valise’s worth of shampoo sachets and books and women’s magazines and underwear. All my life my underwear has troubled me- soon, at last, I’ll be free of it. The Playtex Shroud – separates you from life, lifts you up to heaven.
Of course in the sixties, when the girls were small, I still wore pantyhose and girdles, or stockings and girdles, or just fucking girdles. Anything to flatten that great Ceres of bellies, and strap myself into sylphhood. First came the girls – then the fucking girdles. If I wore stockings I’d snap them on to eyes that were actually attached to the girdle – what an embrasure of nylon and rubber and steel. In the sixties, spontaneous sex was unbelievably difficult to achieve. Any level of arousal whatsoever was bound to be damped down by the time he’d managed to insinuate a hand inside this lot – let alone a dick. It was like a three-minute air-raid warning: `Aawooo! Aaaawoooo! Sex coming! Sex coming!’ And quick, quick boys – an ecstasy of fumbling; but then, `Aaaawoooo Mum-may!!’ The not-all-clear sounded and it was too fucking late. Not that I enjoyed their father’s lovemaking much – but it was the principle that counted. When I grew up, sex really mattered. We didn’t have drugs, or many consumables – but we could hump. We’d come of age during the Second War, when it was de rigueur to rock `n’ roll with all and sundry. Then came the fifties and sixties, when every car that backfired sounded to me like a ten-megaton detonation. The Cold War didn’t exactly give me the hots, but along with many many others I assumed that what I’d want to do while it all came crashing down was screw with Dr Strangelove.
That or kill the kid. Or both. Kill the kid while screwing Strangelove – that was the early sixties for me. But really it was kill the kid. `When they drop the bomb we’ll have to kill the kid,’ I’d say to David Yaws. `You realise that, don’t you’ – I’d say it over dinner; in those days everything was over dinner – `because even if we survive the bombs they drop on London, we’ll wish we hadn’t. It’ll be the kindest thing to do.’
`Really, Lily,’ he’d reply, shovelling his food up in the English fashion, the fork a little bulldozer, the knife a petite barrier, `the Soviets may have walked out of this round of negotiations, but they’ll be back. They know a nuclear war would be madness – just as Eisenhower does.’ Christ! What a sententious prick the man was. He always spoke as if he himself had recently been consulted on the matter in hand: `Is that Mr David Yaws, the ecclesiastical historian?’ `Speaking.’ `I have the Chairman of the Politburo on the telephone for you …’ While I could hardly bear to look at a newspaper, Yaws devoured crisis after crisis, confident that none of it would touch him, that he’d sail on by as he always had.
Yaws had been in the Royal Navy during the war. `I was on the North Atlantic convoys’ was the way he used to put it, in lounge bars, golf-club bars, train buffets – wherever he could adopt the correct hands-in-flannel-trouser-pockets pose. But the truth was he’d been at the pushing-off point for the Atlantic convoys. He was the guy who checked they had enough bullets and biscuits or whatever it was they took with them. He was the fucking quartermaster. And he wasn’t out there in the ocean getting his balls frozen, oh no, not Yaws. No, he was tucked up on shore in the Orkney Islands, billeted in a cosy farmhouse with a lonely farmer’s wife. I daresay there are a few middle-aged Orcadians walking around now with Yaws masks on. Amazing that such a slow-witted man should have had such a slick dick.
It’s the baby talk that made me remember all this, the baby talk I talk with Natty. I always talked too much baby talk with her, which must be why she’s turned out such a baby. I talked it with Charlotte as well, but I think that was to try and make her seem more like a baby and a little less like a scaled-down version of Yaws. One night in May of 1960, Yaws and I went to have dinner with his sister and brother-in-law. Bunny, that was his sister’s name. The whole family had corny nicknames, the world was their nursery. Anyway, Bunny had gone to the trouble of getting us quail. The little birds lay on our plates with their feet clawing at the rim and their heads bisected and laid alongside. This was so we could lick the brains out of them like the sweetmeats they were. I quailed over the quail. The idea of crunching into the eggshell heads revolted me, all the more so because the assembled company were doing just that, and noisily. I felt like I was in a Kafka story. When I tasted the flesh it seemed fishy to me, and when they weren’t noticing I tucked my brace up under a big, limp lettuce leaf.
`Lily thinks we’ll have to kill Charlotte if they drop the bomb,’ Yaws said, and Bunny and Mr Bunny cackled obligingly. To me it sounded like `Lily tinks we’m gonna kill Charlie-warlie when bomb-ums goes off.’ Both baby and, curiously, black talk. When we got home that evening and Yaws turned on the television, the news was being broadcast in baby talk: `De Soviets dem do’ wanna negoshyate. Dem angwy. Dem no like West. Dem baddies.’ I told Yaws the newsreader – a drunk whose shtick was being so – was talking baby talk, but he paid it no mind. The next day, after Mrs Dale’s Diary, I heard a radio announcement in baby talk, and when Yaws got back from the university he found me telling Charlotte, who was two, that she would have to die – in baby talk, naturally. Virginia Bridge was round with her black Gladstone before you could say `barbiturate’. Or even `bar-bar-boo-boo-bituate’.
It was barbs in those days. Virginia called it the `yellow medicine’, but I knew damn well what it was. She kept me lounging on a yellow chemical bed for the next six months, and then I discovered I was pregnant with Natasha. I wonder if it helped usher her into the arms of Morpheus, that amniotic bath of yellow medicine? It helped usher me into even greater anxiety. After David was born, in 1948, I was claustrophobic; after Charlotte was born ten years later I was agoraphobic. But after Natasha was born in 1961 I couldn’t stay in or go outside. I would stand in the back doorway, the baby in my arms, wavering between the awful non-alternatives. I suppose that’s one good thing to be said about dying: it gathers together all those irrational fears and effortlessly trumps them with the Big One. All bets are off. Rien ne va plus.
`I like the way they allow these cats to come on to the ward,’ I say to Natty, who’s packed the valise and is now helping me out of my nightie, into my clothes.
`What?’ I daresay she’s thinking about other, more lively concerns – like where her next fix is coming from, now she hasn’t managed to hit on her sister for a loan.
`The kitties – on the ward. They don’t seem to mind about them. There’s a tabby who sits over there on that old lady’s bed all day; and there’s a tortoiseshell who comes in this window from time to time and curls up right on my tummy. It’s so comforting – I wonder if it’s a new therapy they’ve devised?’ But this doesn’t draw her out either; she only gives me a funny look. The funny look. The look you give dying people who’re seeing things.
Now, here come Richard Elvers and his missus. See how fine they look together – all the deportment and elegance that money can buy. You’d have to say Charlie’s chosen wisely, because they complement each other well. Both fleshy, both anally retentive, both driven. Elvers is a big, sandy-haired man with a safely red complexion (he doesn’t drink). He favours dark, double-breasted suits which rationalise his fat. So does she. `Hello, Lily’ – he leans and pecks at me, as if I’m carrion already – `I’ve just spoken to Molly and she’s given the family seat a good seeing to.’
`Oh, that’s good.’ Now the Filipino’s got her act together – I shall return!
`The car’s right outside on a double yellow – so we’d better get going.’
`Upsy-daisy,’ says Natasha, and she and Richard lever me to my feet. I bestow a few valedictory smiles on the supernumeraries in the other beds – no need to say au revoir. Sister Smith is at the nursing station together with the two nurses who’re coming on for the night shift. `Good to see you up, Mrs Bloom, and on the arm of such a handsome gentleman.’ She has, presumably, assumed that Elvers is one of mine. For shame – really the woman is a fool. Still, I smile as best I can, give her a flash of the plastic. After all, this will probably be the penultimate time I leave the hospital.
©2000 by Will Self. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.