You remember when you were diagnosed with cervical cancer. It is one of those things you know you will never forget. You have forgotten quite a lot. Including how the mere sight of your unclothed mounds used to bring Andy, your husband, pleasure. But you remember even the red silk tie the consultant that broke the news to you wore. The sterile smell that permeated its way into your flared nostrils as you trekked the hospital corridors back to the £2 an hour car park with a visibly stunned Andy.
You remember how you and Andy bought pregnancy tests when you started falling asleep during pre-watershed soaps. Attending your extended lectures and volunteering at the women’s charity started to feel like chores, yet your tests came back negative.
When you woke up on stained sheets for the third time last December, Andy nagged until you booked an appointment with Mrs Khan, the only female doctor at your GP surgery. You remember seeing something unfamiliar in Mrs Khan’s eyes. Eyes that had a way of holding their ground – of making the observed feel inferior. Those eyes that day were receptive as she listened to your symptoms.
“So, do you know when she was diagnosed?” the new palliative care nurse asks Teni, your friend, again. “It says in her notes, January of this year.”
“Yeah, January.” Teni’s tiny hand is stroking one of yours now.
You know the skin on your hand feels like sandpaper but Teni refuses to let go. She hasn’t let go since she found out.
Your skin is not the hydrated unblemished brown it used to be. It is now the colour of wet old ash. Patchy skin, dry lips, an almost hairless head and brittle nails are what you got from daily treatment sessions. Yet the treatment has left you with more tumours than it found in your once healthy body.
“I was diagnosed last December. Five days before Christmas,” you tell the nurse, fighting to steady your voice.
“I moved in to help care for her. Her husband is a Doctor at the university.” Teni speaks up.
She insists on telling all the different carers, nurses and doctors that you are somebody’s wife, somebody’s daughter as if you are too significant to be conquered by cancer.
The nurse didn’t look at you as she put your care plan back on the lounge table with all your necessities these days: baby wipes, talcum powder, antiseptic cream, meds trays and pain-relief patches.
Her face doesn’t change. It stays unnaturally straight as if forced. She speaks briskly –avoiding your eyes – concentrating on Teni’s face.
“Her meds should help at night. If she has any problems, ring us or her GP.”
When the nurse leaves, you joke with Teni that the illness has turned you into a child that can’t be trusted to look after itself. Teni’s eyes are angry and you wonder if she and Andy have fallen out again.
Her eyes won’t meet yours as she feeds you brim-full spoons of tomato soup. Your right arm’s unexplained shooting soreness will not let you feed yourself. That is the thing with big ailments, as soon as they beat one down, small ones too swoop down to take their own chunk.
When you probe her, Teni opens up. She tells you she is angry on your behalf, about the way the nurses avoid the ugly truth; the district ones, the cancer specialists and even the palliative nurses who should have a heart thick enough not to be torn by death are all failing you. Some of them wear solemn looks. Others plaster thick smiles – that fails to brighten their eyes – on their faces. Whilst some would chatter nonstop, pretending they have not heard you ask, “how long”.
You try to keep the soup in even though it is making you nauseous.
“Teni, it is hard for people. I see it in their eyes when they look at me.”
“Pity?” Her voice sounds as if it will not hold for long.
“Fear,” you mutter as if it has taken over you too.
The way it took over your mother –when you broke the news to your parents — and she rocked for ages, asking why the spirits of her forefathers opted to sleep in their graves rather than protect their young. The same spirits that dozed as your little sister catapulted down the stairs and fell into a permanent sleep when you were six. She’d broken through the slim barrier between earth and nothingness, crossing the shore with half of your mother’s heart.
You remember how your father shook his head repeatedly when they found out. And the one thing he said that kept coming back to your mind during those repeated trips to the hospital – was how relieved he was that you’d married Andy.
English men look after their women. A Nigerian man would have bolted as soon as he heard the word cancer.
You were glad when they finally left the countryside to spend the rest of their holiday with your brother in Hackney Downs. Every time your mother stared at you, it was as if she could see your sister’s battered body again.
“It must be hard for people because they don’t know what to say. But they can try. It is harder for me and Andy.” Teni interrupts your thoughts. She puts the spoon back down in the bowl. It is no use. She knows it is not your fault that your stomach doesn’t know hunger anymore.
Teni was the first person you told about your diagnosis. After you succeeded in persuading Andy that doing normal things would not make the tumours grow faster, he drove you down to North London one cold December morning so you could break the news to her. You remember how she wept quietly in her fiancé’s arms and how she dried her eyes afterwards and asked when your next appointment was so she could go with you.
When Andy arrives home, it is dark outside. He sits on the bed. His lips greet yours with tender grazes. You smell lager on his breath. He’d gone for a celebratory drink at the pub after winning a teaching award.
His eyes fall on your nightwear. You know he wants to help you change into a clean one. The one you have on has a damp patch the colour of strawberry Ribena on it. Most times these days, you are not certain where the fluid seeps out from, but like a damaged tap it trickles.
You won’t let Andy change you. You don’t know if he understands, because he doesn’t turn round to acknowledge your apology. He goes into the kitchen instead to get Teni.
These days, he eats his meal which Teni has ready for him alone on the ash IKEA table with the three empty chairs facing him. The dining table is a reminder of your father-in-law’s expectations of his only son’s wife because when the wedding present arrived it had come with a note that read,
Welcome to the family, Lara. I will add more chairs when you need them.
You’d asked to call him dad after your wedding reception, explaining that’s what people do in your culture. He’d accepted with tears in his eyes.
Sipho, your night carer arrives. You let your mind drift away as Teni and Sipho support your broken body off the bed to the commode. They talk about men, the social media debates about lightening creams and hair extensions. But you are not listening – although, sometimes you listen and live through their conversations. Today, you are glad you can escape your body and seek solace in your own reflections.
Your body is so broken these days that the parts that are not fragile or swollen have forgotten what they do. Going out in your new wheelchair with Andy leaves you feeling wretched because people stare at you. Perhaps wondering why a white man is pushing a black woman in a wheelchair.
Dr Andrew Stokes, your Andy, was your Social Perspectives module lecturer during your undergraduate days at the university. He smiled when you told him you had applied to do your post graduate degree at Hertfordshire University, and you assumed because his smile lingered that he couldn’t wait to see the back of you.
When you visited his office to pick up an essay report, he hugged you and that was when you first noticed it, in the lyrical way he pronounced your name as if he had practised saying it. Because although, Teni had teased you that his favourable stance on immigration had everything to do with the way his eyes sought you out in the lecture hall, it hadn’t occurred to you to look deeper for the signs.
You were weighed down with new theories of your new degree when he emailed you wanting to know if you drank coffee. He was at your new university attending a series of conferences on African Politics. You were pleased that he didn’t ask you what you thought of African Politics, that instead he leaned over and kissed you at the café on the last day of the talks.
It wasn’t just his bright blue eyes that reeled you in that afternoon. It was everything about him – his brown hair, his subtle aftershave and the flat lean midriff.
You watched Girl with a Pearl Earring in his house but missed most of it because his eyes didn’t leave yours and a kiss failed to quench your thirst for each other. A thirst you were sure the short red dress you wore made worse. It was whilst his mouth and yours were locked for the third time that his hand started to unzip the red dress.
It was all perfect until he blurted, “I’m so sorry.”
“Won’t you be sorry if you stop now?” The pout of your lightly glossed lips had betrayed you, it was supposed to sound like a joke.
Andy had grinned, taking your hands in his to explain how much he felt for you. He didn’t want to ruin it by taking advantage. You wanted to command him ‘to take advantage’ but you didn’t.
His strength failed him when you turned your back to him so he could zip up your dress.
You started to spend evenings at his house, preferring it to the flat you shared with three other girls in Enfield. He wasn’t selfish in bed or out of it, his hands holding your naked waist even in his sleep.
You liked that he let you put flakes of ground dried chillies in his shepherd’s pie and that he apologised for failing in his quest to stop smoking. He would often joke that you would outlive him by decades if he didn’t succeed.
Your carer leaves to make a cup of tea when Andy comes downstairs. He reads newspapers on the bed – which has become your everything now. You are reading the Book of Revelation when he comes down and although you know he doesn’t approve, he swallows his condemnation. The way he swallowed it when your parents came from Nigeria and your mother doused your body in the holy water that a renowned pastor prayed over for 21 days.
“How are you, beautiful?”
You don’t like that he still calls you beautiful. Cancer has eaten away all that once made you beautiful.
“How can you be so forgiving of God, Lara?” His eyes are on the Bible now.
You stop reading it to look up at him.
“You went to church every Sunday before you became too ill to go. No healing miracle. Yet, you’re still holding on to your… faith.” Grey streaks tinge the edges of his hair now, a new feature after your diagnosis. It makes him look angrier.
“That doesn’t make me a saint,” you say.
“But why do you not hate God? Why are you not angry with him?”
“The same way I wouldn’t be angry with you.”
He flinches and you see fear darken his pupils. For a moment, you let him think that you know and then you add, “Not that you have done anything but love me,” because it is essential that he forgives himself.
You found them together three weeks after you asked Teni to move in with you. A month after you started sleeping on the double bed in the lounge. You’d woken up in the middle of the night and decided to be close to Andy again. You were tired of refusing to let him hold you and he had stopped pleading with you to let him in.
You gathered your strength and climbed the stairs but had to stop halfway up when a shocking sight confronted you. Through the gap of the half-closed door of your bedroom, you could see Andy’s lower half in between Teni’s legs.
For a few seconds, your limbs refused to work. You closed your eyes, praying to be woken from your nightmare but when your eyes opened, they were still there – doing what you thought he would never do with any other woman.
You had to wait in a heap at the bottom of the stairs and endure hearing Andy’s grunts because somehow you didn’t believe it was him you had seen on top of your friend.
And then you heard her crying afterwards, blaming it on her grief. He followed suit, blaming it on Stella Artois and your cancer. You couldn’t bear it anymore. Grabbing hold of the rails you tiptoed back to the double bed. To your everything.
You wanted to disappear after seeing them together. So, the next morning, you put your whole body under the duvet cover. You pretended the drugs made you sleepy. With your eyes closed, you basked in the self-inflicted isolation. It helped. Eventually, you stopped feeling angry, letting grief replace anger.
Andy is nodding off beside you when you come out of sleep days later. You don’t wake him to go to bed like you normally do because tonight feels different. There is a weight pressing on your chest, suffocating you. But because there are enough opioids coursing through your bloodstream, you do not feel any pain. Christmas is not near and it looks like the promise you made to see this winter’s snowdrops blossoming and watch the Queen’s speech one more year with him will be broken.
The dreams you didn’t realise – especially the children you didn’t give birth to – makes it painful to bear. But you are happy that Teni is tucked away in bed and your parents are back in Nigeria. Happy it will be over before your parents arrive in November because although the GP visited yesterday and thought you looked perkier, your sister has started dropping in when everyone else is asleep. You see her now in front of the fireplace smiling, holding out a hand.