by Trish Leake
Glossy magazines sat marooned on the waiting room tables. It felt wrong to read about homes and gardens, health and beauty in a place like this.
Everyone perched on the plastic bucket seats lined up against the wall so that they could avoid each other’s eyes. The patients stared ahead, hands clutched together in their laps, or holding onto a handbag strap. Relatives fidgeted a lot, eyes darting, not knowing what to say or how to be.
I sat alone, concentrating on breathing, in out, strong and rhythmic, full of purpose. That’s all I seemed to have done for the past week. I had breathed in and out every minute, and only at night dared to count the days remaining before the week was over. The lump was still there, larger than a fifty pence piece, just under the skin and itchy rather than painful. The antibiotics had made me so dizzy and sick that I had hardly ventured out of the bed-sit, let alone looked for a job. I was now compulsively familiar with the small dingy blue room I had moved into only two weeks ago.
The door always needed a good shove after unlocking so that I fell in through it every time just catching myself before tripping over the beige carpet that used to boast more than one colour and pattern. A single armchair, also beige, faced the dirty window. There was a worktop with a two-ring cooker and two cupboards below, and at the end of the worktop an ancient portable television promised much but did not deliver. I had spent the first two evenings climbing on and off the bed, chair, worktop, and almost hanging out of the window with the portable aerial in a vain attempt to get a picture that didn’t look like a stormy sea off the north Irish coast, or indeed sound like it. I even tried the old college trick with a wire coat hanger. After that I gave up and spent the evenings listening to music from the next door room and staring at nothing.
The trip to London had been a bit traumatic, driving around Paddington creaking in my overloaded car looking for a B & B. But I’d only been there for three nights before I’d found this place. It would do for now, while I lived on my savings and looked for a job; something clerical to start with perhaps where I could blend in with a crowd of laughing girls who wouldn’t notice my shyness and would welcome someone new to listen to their problems and stories about their boyfriends. I hadn’t planned on getting sick; I hadn’t planned on this at all.
The night I moved into the bed-sit I noticed a hot, itchy place near the top of my left breast. I’d looked around the room with different eyes then, thrilled to have my privacy back so soon and inordinately pleased with myself, so newly arrived, so inexperienced in big city life yet managing so well. I’d unloaded the car, smiling to myself that gorgeous young men only came jogging down the stairs to help at the right time in those predictable magazine stories. Yet, it would be nice….. I laughed ruefully at the fantasy, struggling up two flights of stairs with the final box of books and tapes I’d thought I couldn’t bear to be without. Half an hour later, with piles of bedding on the floor and the worktop covered with an assortment of kitchen things to get me started, I ran downstairs again and out to phone my parents with the good news and treat myself to a Chinese takeaway to celebrate.
The itching got worse the next day and by the following night the area was an angry burning red that was beginning to scare me. I lay awake; feeling nauseous and very tired and by morning knew that I was on the way to being quite ill. Of course I hadn’t had time to register with a doctor but I remembered passing a large hospital at the end of the next street and so that is how a week ago I came to be sitting in that room on the fourth floor of St. Mary’s Hospital. Unaware of any drama being played out in front of me, I waited to be called through one of four doors leading, I later discovered, to small equally drab treatment rooms where examinations, discussions, biopsies, blood tests and consultations were carried out with at times an almost unbearably brisk efficiency.
My doctor was young, serious and silent as I outlined my symptoms, showing him the affected place matter-of-factly and looking away as he gently pressed the area around the hard flat oval disc that moved with his fingers but did not disappear.
‘Hmm…..does it hurt?’ he asked, looking directly at me for the first time
‘No,’ I replied, waiting for him to say it was nothing, that I was wasting their time and it would go away on its own. He didn’t.
‘I’d like you to have a biopsy. That’s where we insert a needle and take a fine sliver of the lump for analysis. We’ll have the results back in a week’s time and in the meantime I’ll get you started on antibiotics to help fight the infection. I see you’ve put down that you’re allergic to penicillin?’
‘No problem, I can give you some others but I’m afraid they may make you rather sick so you’re in for a rough week. Anyway, let’s get this biopsy over with. This is going to hurt but I’ll be as quick as I can.’
Afterwards he told me that eight out of ten lumps were non-cancerous and I was to try not to worry and wait outside for the nurse to bring me the prescription to take to the hospital pharmacy. I was shocked….stunned that he’d actually used that word and dizzy with the implications. The words were oh so familiar – I’d read them in the paper so many times, discussed with my mother the rising numbers of cases and their possible links with the hazards of modern life and I’d joined in with friends’ admiration for women who had lost their hair and who had proudly sported their enviable bone structure or showed their quirky and brave sense of humour in their choice of hats and scarves. But that wasn’t me. I’d just come to London for the greatest adventure of my life.
I raised my eyes now swimming with unshed tears of fear and met those of a middle aged woman sitting directly opposite me. She didn’t look away but slowly and deliberately nodded to me once, locking her eyes onto mine while I struggled to regain control. I swallowed once…twice and found that my eyes cleared and I was able to breathe again. When she saw this, she nodded once more and then turned to continue her conversation. The nurse called me over to the desk and with the piece of paper clasped in my hand and trying not to run, I hurried out to the lifts.
That week during the long nights I found myself softly stroking the skin around the disc, at times overwhelmed with a feeling of tenderness and love for this part of my body that might now be damaged beyond repair. At other times, filled with anger at the helplessness and tiredness that had so quickly become part of my newly anticipated life, I lay with my hand cradling the other breast, the “good” one, the one with nothing wrong with it, the one that hadn’t let me down. Now, it felt like a year later, I was back in the large waiting room, strangely familiar after evenings imagining myself emerging from one of the rooms, cleansed of the red angry stain on my skin and proudly walking to the lift with people clapping and cheering my survival.
Superstitious, the same seat as before was free and I made my way across the room, studiously avoiding any possible eye contact. I was still staring hard at the floor when a nurse came over and announced with apologies that the appointments were running half an hour late due to an emergency. Smart move, I thought, we can’t complain. There was a guy sitting three seats away holding a baby girl. She was wearing a red fleecy dress below her solemn little white face, large dark eyes staring at the toddler on the floor in denim dungarees. He was pushing a green truck while the father made engine noises in a hushed whisper. It was obvious from his frequent glances that he was waiting for news from room three.
Across from me was an elderly couple dressed too warmly for the heat of the hospital. They neither talked nor looked at each other and yet I could see that her coat sleeve disappeared into his pocket along with his. My resolve shook a little as I thought of the wrinkled, veined fingers entwined in secret comfort. I hadn’t told my parents anything. Urgent whispers interrupted my thoughts as another younger couple arguing tried to keep their voices low, the woman angrily twitching the skirt of her green sari whilst the man wiped at the sheen on his forehead. Suddenly the door to number one opened and an extremely small, old Asian lady came out slowly and made her way over to the couple. They rose to meet her and sank into their chairs again all talking at once. Everyone’s attention was riveted on these people, desperately trying to guess whether it was good news or bad. I couldn’t tell, the talk was animated but there were no smiles or hugs or tears. The nurse called a name and the elderly couple got up and went into number one.
To my left sat a woman dressed in a black trouser suit, perfectly made up as though she worked on the perfume counter of a department store. She hid behind large dark sunglasses, head high and still. The sudden hush turned my head to see the young mother come out of room three and approach her family. The man stood up and handed over the baby, the boy glanced up from his truck and laughed, they sat down, no words and she buried her face in the baby’s neck. Everyone looked away from her pain. I swallowed hard; this was like a raffle – the odd numbered doors for those testing positive. I prayed to be called to room two. I needed to go to the toilet and rose, looking around me for the sign. The door to number four opened and a nurse came out and called my name. I froze, already standing. I walked across to the room.
It was identical to the one the previous week. The nurse was talking to me; I’d missed what she’d said. She was standing with a syringe for me to roll my sleeve up. She took some blood. I felt nothing. There was a rushing sound in my ears. She went out. I sat. After some time, the same doctor from last week came in and sat down.
‘Well, Miss Poole, the results are back and I’m pleased to tell you that the lump is benign.’ I looked at him and started to shake quite badly. He took my hand and I gripped hard.
‘It’s good news,’ he said quietly, looking into my eyes. ‘You don’t have cancer.’
‘What is it then?’
‘It seems to be a calcified lump – women who are breast feeding sometimes get it.’ I thought of the mother outside who had maybe hoped for this. Life was so unfair. Abruptly I started to laugh. Startled, the doctor dropped my hand.
‘Well that can’t be right,’ I giggled.
‘No,’ he smiled, ‘not in your case. Have you suffered any kind of blow to the chest recently?’
‘I’ve just moved…there were a lot of boxes…’ The nurse came back with a slip of paper and gave it to the doctor.
‘It seems you’re a bit anaemic, so what we’ll do is give you some tablets for that. The lump should dissolve by itself and you won’t need any more antibiotics. I’d like to see you in six months just to check it’s gone and we’ll keep your notes here in case it ever happens again. But I don’t think it will.’ He got up to shake hands. Holding on too long, I said a heartfelt thank you.
‘It’s nice to be able to give good news,’ he said with a smile and was gone.
Outside the nurse reminded me about the prescription. There were other people waiting now. The young family had gone, the woman in the trouser suit walked past me with a brittle smile into room four. The nurse came with my prescription, I wondered if the elderly couple had come out yet.
Later, in a café, I sat with a steaming coffee in front of me, put on my sunglasses and looked out of the window at the crowds hurrying home in the rain.
I’ve been writing for years, poetry and micro- fiction. I enjoy cutting to the least number of words. After a stroke at fifty years old I couldn’t work, so I decided it was time to take writing more seriously; it gives me a focus. I think we all have stories to tell, and I’m working on a book of short stories from my Irish family.
Your publication gave me the guts to delve into my memory of twenty years ago and my brush with big C. as you can see from this storyThe Luck of the Door, I was one of the lucky ones. The memories are my only scars.