By Sarah Evans
Turning up on an empty stomach at the clinic, I wonder why it is I’ve come. A Well Woman check. I have no reason to suppose I’m ill; it seems perverse to seek out ways in which I might be.
The check-up comes free with work. I always was a sucker for free offers.
I fill in forms, then sit and wait. The reception area boasts comfy chairs, pale green walls and bland music. The nurse smiles widely and I follow her to a small room. I am weighed and measured: I am slightly underweight, and that is basically good. My blood pressure is fine, my heart beat strong, my pulse slow and regular. I pee into a small cup. She draws blood.
I am free now to break my fast. Someone brings me tea and biscuits. I think of my inbox at work accumulating emails that will require action.
I see the doctor; he is fat, hardly an advert of good health. He smiles. So far everything is good, very good.
I partially undress. The female nurse hovers in attendance as the doctor’s hands rove over my body, warm and impersonal, checking this and that. All good. He feels my breasts, two sacs of flesh, and there is nothing intimate about the act. He cannot detect anything wrong.
I get dressed.
He looks down at my form. I was forty a month ago. He explains that I can, if I wish, have a mammogram. Ten years earlier than NHS screening, but it is part of the service.
I hesitate, then say yes. Why not. All part of the free deal.
A little later and I wish I had said no.
I’d had a vague idea of X-ray photos taken from different angles. I hadn’t expected the contortions required to get each breast – one lump of flesh at a time – in place, the squeezing, very hard, between two plates, the twisting and squashing flat as possible, to take the images. Four images are needed, each as unpleasant as the last, and then I have to wait while the nurse checks they are OK.
‘I’m sorry,’ she says when she returns. ‘I just need to do one more.’
Leaving the clinic five minutes later, I breathe in the fresh air. My breasts are sore, but my arms swing as I walk with a bounce.
I have never felt so well.
It is a week later. My phone rings, the dual bleep that tells me it’s an outside line. ‘Hello, Moira Stewart at the OFT,’ I say.
‘This is Doctor Matthews, from the Nuffield clinic,’ the voice says.
My heart pulses.
‘It’s nothing to worry about,’ he says. Immediately I am filled with slow, thick dread. ‘The mammogram…’
Something in the image has provided pause for thought. An area of shadow. Small and well defined. Typical of… I don’t catch the medical term he uses, though I catch the phrase, ‘…most likely benign.’
‘Benign?’ I echo back, not because the word wasn’t clear, but because I want the reassurance of it being repeated.
‘Most likely, yes. Probably a cyst. But…’
He recommends a follow up appointment. An ultrasound scan will provide a different type of image; the two together will allow a firm diagnosis. He repeats that I should not worry.
The words worry away at me throughout the afternoon, they multiply and spread through my mind and won’t go away. I think of ringing Andrew. But we are both at work and it is uncomfortable to say words like breast and lump when colleagues sitting close might overhear. And when saying them out loud will make then real.
I bring up a new email. I hesitate over the subject line and then leave it blank. I repeat what the doctor has said together with his reassurances. Probably nothing.
Five minutes later I get a reply. It is understated. Hope you’re OK. But that is what neither of us know. I’m sure it’ll be fine. But he cannot possibly know that.
Heading out from the office, I feel sick.
We are meeting up with friends, which is unfortunate. When I greet Andrew outside the restaurant, he squeezes my hand but does not say anything. When Jo asks, ‘How are you?’ I hear my voice asserting brightly that I’m absolutely fine.
The restaurant teems with life; it is packed with lively people and busy waiters. We order drinks and food.
Jo takes centre stage as usual, talking rapidly about her and Tim’s latest holiday. Her white top is cut low, showing off her tan. Her push-up bra leaves a deep canyon of cleavage. My own breasts are small in comparison and conservatively encased in a high necked blouse.
We drink. We eat. Others talk. But my quietness is not that unusual.
I order decaff coffee, but am not sure the waitress takes the order properly. Jo and Tim are taking in an art exhibition tomorrow. The Impressionists. Would we like to come?
‘Sure,’ Andrew says and looks at me.
‘Sure,’ I echo back.
Waiting on the platform for the tube home I gaze at the poster opposite which shows two regular bananas alongside a pink one. Go pink, reads the header. For a moment I can’t figure out what it is about. Then I realise. It is advertising breast cancer.
Advertising is the wrong word.
Promoting awareness. Or something.
I have always hated the colour pink.
A train arrives and we push ourselves into the throng, standing close to other people. Thigh to thigh. Hip to hip. Breast to breast.
The crowds thin at King’s Cross. I look at the two women opposite, dressed to kill, dressed to expose…pretty much all.
Walking home we pass more posters. Models modelling underwear. A female singer wearing little more.
Breasts are everywhere.
In bed, I want to talk, but don’t know what I want to say.
‘’Night,’ Andrew says and curls away from me.
I lie, restless, all buzzed up. On caffeine. On fear.
My hand seeks out my breast and gently probes, but – like the doctor – I can find nothing.
When finally I sleep, I dream of not being able to sleep.
I wake to Andrew bringing me a cup of tea. We snuggle close and his hand reaches round to lie beneath my left breast and I realise that I did not say which breast and that he has not asked.
I move his hand away.
‘Best get a move on,’ I say. ‘If we’re meeting up at ten.’
When I shower, I avoid looking in the mirror.
In the art gallery, the four of us wander round, together and alone, choosing different pictures to pause in front of. Andrew and I pass each other from time to time and point out our favourites in case the other has not properly noticed.
There are naked women everywhere, their breasts small and neat, large and round, firm or sagging under their weight.
Gauguin’s golden limbed natives.
Redon’s red Eve.
Renoir’s grand nu with rosy coloured breasts, reflecting back the plump contours of her smiling face.
I move onto still-life and gaze at vases of flowers and bowls of round, blemished apples.
Nature mort reads the label.
Back home, I lock myself in the bathroom. I slip out of my clothes and stand in front of the mirror and look at the Well Woman reflecting back. I look at the left breast and the right, their two fold symmetry. Small and firm and high, the way they have always been.
‘Are you OK?’ Andrew’s voice comes through the door.
No, I want to say. I’m not OK. ‘Fine,’ my voice calls out.
I take one last look.
My image is framed by the blue wood of the mirror: Woman with lump.
Sarah Evans has had dozens of stories published in magazines and competition anthologies, including: the Bridport Prize, Momaya Press, Earlyworks Press, Tonto Press and Writers’ Forum. A recent interview about her writing can be found here: http://www.everydayfiction.com/flashfictionblog/erins-interview-with-author-of-edf-author-of-junes-top-story/.
She lives in Welwyn Garden City with her husband and as well as writing is interested in opera, walking in the Lake District and dancing.
Written as fiction, this story is very loosely based on an experience from several years ago. The lump did (as expected) turn out to be a benign cyst.