One Word Kill (Impossible Times)
When Dr Parsons finally ran out of alternatives and reached the word ‘cancer’, he moved past it so quickly I almost thought I’d imagined it. He told me that boys of my age reacted very well to treatment. My mother took over the conversation at that point, launching them both into a lengthy discussion of survival rates. She always sought refuge in technical detail when life lurched into uncomfortable territory. To be honest, though, two minutes after being faced with a diagnosis of leukaemia is not the ideal time to have someone establish that when the medical profession says ‘cured’ it means ‘survived five years’. Five years would break me into the 1990s at the grand old age of twenty.
That was the eighth day of January 1986. Dr Parsons, under pressure from my mother, revealed that around half of patients with my particular flavour of the disease would still be above ground five years after their diagnosis. ‘Cured!’ As unwilling to speculate as he was, I think even Dr Parsons would have assured me that the cancer would give me the next four weeks. But as it turned out, I would die even before February got into its stride.
Dr Ian Parsons was a tall, angular man with short black boring hair and absolutely no bedside manner. He looked deeply uncomfortable and, perhaps unfairly, I formed the impression that he felt it to be my fault that he found himself in the unfortunate position of having to tell a fifteen-year-old ‘boy’ he had at best a coin flip of reaching his twenties. I forgave him, though. I was both tall and angular myself and probably had no potential in me for a better bedside manner of my own. In general, I found other people to be a far greater mystery than, say, integral calculus, which my friends at school assured me was supposed to be difficult. I take pride in that ‘s’. Friends. I had two. Three, if you broadened the search beyond the school gates and counted Elton. Which I did. Four, if you counted the girl. Which, rather stupidly, I didn’t.
I watched Dr Parsons and my mother talk. I had tuned out the actual words by that point and it was rather like watching the tennis with the sound off: a McEnroe-Lendl grudge match, questions and answers slammed across the scuffed table top. People look funny when you turn down the TV volume and they dance without music. When they talk without meaning it’s the same thing. If you ignore the words, there’s an honesty in the emotion that fleets across faces in conversation. Around my mother’s eyes was a surprising desperation. If I had been listening to her I wouldn’t have noticed it. She was always on top of any given situation, gathering the facts, completely in control of herself. Steely stare, serious grey hair – she’d gone grey in her twenties – narrow mouth carefully shaping each interrogation. But with the sound turned down she looked on the edge of tears. That worried me a lot. On Dr Parsons’s pinched features a mixture of boredom and guilt. Perhaps the odd hint of surprise at my mother’s depth of knowledge. A polymath. That’s how people described her. My father used to say that she knew everything about everything. He died when I was twelve. He also had cancer, but an oncoming train cured him.
My father had been a mathematician. A famous one. At least as far as any mathematician or scientist not named Einstein can be famous. Other mathematicians in his field knew his name. Nobody else did.
On the day he died, he told me: ‘The equations that govern the universe don’t care about “now”. You can ask them questions about this time or that time, but nowhere in the elegance of their mathematics is there any such thing as “now”. The idea of one specific moment, one universal “now” racing along at sixty minutes an hour, slicing through the seconds, spitting the past out behind it and throwing itself into the future . . . that’s just an artefact of consciousness, something entirely of our own making that the cosmos has no use for.’
We spoke like that.
‘Nick?’ My mother had obviously reached a conclusion and required me to say ‘yes’ before implementing the plan of action.
‘I agree with the doctor,’ I said.
‘Well then.’ Dr Parsons reached for the phone beside his notepad. ‘I’ll book you in for chemotherapy tomorrow. We’ve caught this early and with swift treatment the prognosis is . . .’ He blanched somewhat beneath Mother’s stare. ‘Um. Better.’
I don’t remember that first night spent at home, or rather all I have is the recollection of racing endlessly around a tight circle of thought: terror chasing its own tail, paralysis disguised as action.
The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that cancer is a noun and advises on pronunciation before declaring it a disease caused by an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells within the body. Put like that it doesn’t sound too scary. Then it spoils the effect by noting the Greek root, karkinos, crab, said to have arisen from the swollen veins radiating from tumours that gave the impression of the many limbs of a crab.
At least they didn’t name it after spiders. If I was going to be eaten alive, and I in no way wished to be, let it be by a crab rather than a spider.
Before my father’s diagnosis, cancer had just been a word that occasionally poked itself from the background of general scariness into specifics. ‘Mrs Ellard, she’s got the cancer. It doesn’t look good.’ ‘Simon’s little brother? He won’t be coming to school after all, dear.’ ‘The Big “C”. Enough said.’
Afterwards it had become a monster that stalked behind me, and I walked on through my days steadfastly refusing to look its way in case it pounced. Turns out it didn’t matter whether I looked or not. I got pounced on anyway.
I felt less scared at the hospital. Even though all statistics screamed that every white-tiled wall, every over-complicated bed, rubber tube, needle, and bag of clear fluids was an admission of failure. These people didn’t know how to make me better, but they acted as if they did. They had crisp white uniforms, stethoscopes, a practised compassion. Their confidence partly filled the hole left when mine ran for the hills.
They call it chemo ‘therapy’ and sometimes the nurses would say things like, ‘Time to take your medicine, Nick.’ But nobody really thought of it as medicine. It’s not. It’s poison.
They used to poison you if you got syphilis. I have my mother to thank for this little nugget of information. There aren’t many boys of fifteen who can say that. Not so long before my blood turned sour, but a sufficient number of decades to take you back before World War II and the use of penicillin, the only effective treatment for syphilis was to dose the victim with arsenic. The logic being that although arsenic is a deadly poison it is more deadly to the bacteria that cause the disease and, with careful judgement, the doctor can kill one of you without killing the other. Chemotherapy is much the same. The chemicals used may not be such well-known favourites of celebrated poisoners, but the idea remained unchanged. The aim was to make my blood into a soup toxic enough to kill the cancer cells while allowing the rest of me to struggle on.
I lay in a clean white bed beneath crisp cotton sheets on a ward where identical beds marched left and right partitioned by curtains that could be drawn for privacy. There were eleven of us in there, and three empty beds. About a third of us looked as if we’d just been pulled in off the street and stuck in a backless gown. Which to be fair is pretty much what had happened. Another third were losing their hair, some in alarming tufts, leaving an ugly patchwork of scalp, others suffering a general thinning like old men do. These kids looked unwell, black rings around their eyes as if they’d missed a couple of nights’ sleep, pale-skinned, sweaty. Most of them were younger than me. A year older and they would have put me in Ealing General with the adults. The final third were bald and so thin you’d expect their bones to break through if they strained too hard. These kids behaved like old men and women, lying exhausted in their beds, eyes bright in dark hollows. When they looked at you it didn’t take much imagination to see the skull beneath the skin.
They had us arranged by length in treatment so the ward looked rather like an assembly line, taking in healthy children at one end and spitting out corpses at the other.
An uncomfortably attractive nurse, who didn’t look much older than me and called me Nicky in an annoyingly patronising voice, set up my line. The ‘line’ was a needle stuck into a vein in my arm, bound with about a mile of white gauze. The poison oozed through the needle, fed down a plastic tube from a clear bag on a stand beside the bed. It was a virulent yellow. I imagined radioactive urine might look much the same.
The parents and other visitors were shuffled out at half past five, some striding sharply toward the doors as if eager for fresh air, others dragging their heels, calling goodbyes. Some brave-faced, waiting to cry, some as grey and drawn as the child they were leaving behind. They went in a swirl of noise and empty promises, Mother with them. I didn’t feel any more alone than I had done previously. It had only been a day, but I’d already discovered that cancer drops a bell jar over you, cutting you off from the world. You can still see it, but what it says is muffled and can’t touch you. I hadn’t called anyone. I hadn’t told anyone. What would I say?
Nobody on the ward wanted to talk much, except for a girl called Eva in the bed opposite. She wanted to talk too much. The rest of us seemed to want to pretend this wasn’t happening. To read our books and our comics, eat our sweets if we still had appetites, listen to the hospital radio on headphones that looked like white plastic tongs.
‘They say some people don’t vomit at all in the first week,’ Eva told me.
I’d tried keeping my eyes glued to the pages of my book. I’d brought Bertrand Russell’s Principia Mathematica because I wanted to see him build his marvellous mathematical house of cards. I needed to see the edifice raised in all its glory. Fresh, entire, complete, like a perfect son sprung whole from his father’s brow. Then I would move on to read how a brilliant young mathematician named Kurt Gödel had brought Russell’s great work crashing down eighteen years later. The genius’s golden child shown to have feet of clay after all; tripped by Gödel’s theorem of incompleteness and left in sprawling ruin. I guess Gödel’s theorem was Russell’s cancer, the uncontrolled division of abnormal cells deep within the mathematics, a taint that no amount of poison could drive from its veins.
Eva didn’t care about any of that, any more than she cared about social signals like monosyllabic replies. Perhaps she had always been that way, or maybe she felt her diagnosis had given her licence.
‘What’re you reading? It looks dull. I don’t like to read. I wish they had a telly in here.’ Eva paused, for breath rather than for answers.
‘Oh,’ I said.
She said she was fourteen, but I would have believed her if she’d told me ten or twenty. She was thin and bland, with lank brown hair and a blade of a nose. Eva had tumours in her liver, she said. She asked me what that meant, but didn’t listen when I told her. I’m not sure she even knew where her liver was or what it did.
‘I bet I’m sick all night. This is my first night, you know. I’m going to be puking till we see yesterday’s breakfast. Do you feel sick? I feel a bit ill already. Do you taste lemons?’
‘No.’ I wasn’t sure what I felt like. Wound too tight. Ready to run. Hungry, sick, impatient, unable to stop the equations dancing and blurring on the page . . . a million things at once. But talking about it all wasn’t one of those million things I felt like.
A nurse walked in through the double doors at our end of the ward, her stainless-steel trolley rattling along, laden with bags of virulent yellow toxin.
Behind her, down the long green corridor that led to the outside world, I saw my mother. She should have left the building ten minutes before. I expected her to be nearly halfway home by now, but there she was, facing a tall man in a dark coat. I couldn’t tell much about him given the distance, but even so there was something suddenly familiar there. Not in that everyday sense of recognition but in the déjà vu way: an intense, almost fierce, certainty that I had seen this tableau before. The tall man in his dark coat, the fluorescent corridor lights gleaming on a perfectly bald head. He angled his face toward my mother in anger or concern while she, in a manner that made me doubt if she even were my mother, flinched away as if struck, retreating until her back pressed against the wall, her hands spread to either side like they were feeling for any exit on offer.
The doors swung closed, sealing off the view.
‘I bet I’m sick all night. This is my first night, you know,’ Eva said, and above us the lights dimmed and then for a second shone brighter than they should.
‘Didn’t you just tell me that?’ I asked, glancing at the needle in my arm, the yellow poison queuing for entry.
A momentary frown and she carried on. ‘I’m going to be puking till we see yesterday’s breakfast. Do you feel sick? I feel a bit ill already. Do you taste lemons?’