Sometimes on a Sunday Dad drives me and Cal to visit Mum. We get the lift up to the eighth floor, and usually there’s a moment when she opens the door and says, ‘Hey, you!’ and includes all three of us in her gaze. Dad usually loiters for a while on the step and they talk.
But today when she opens the door, Dad’s so desperate to get away from me that he’s already moving back across the hallway towards the lift.
‘Watch her,’ he says, jabbing a finger in my direction. ‘She’s not to be trusted.’
Mum laughs. ‘Why, what did she do?’
Cal can hardly contain his excitement. ‘Dad told her not to go clubbing.’
‘Ah,’ Mum says. ‘That sounds like your father.’
‘But she went anyway. She only got home just now. She was out all night.’
Mum smiles at me fondly. ‘Did you meet a boy?’
‘I bet you did. What’s his name?’
Dad looks furious. ‘Typical,’ he says. ‘Bloody typical. I might’ve known I wouldn’t get any support from you.’
‘Oh, shush,’ Mum says. ‘It hasn’t done her any harm, has it?’
‘Look at her. She’s completely exhausted.’
All three of them take a moment to look at me. I hate it. I feel dismal and cold and my stomach aches. It’s been hurting since having sex with Jake. No one told me that would happen.
‘I’ll be back at four,’ Dad says as he steps into the lift. ‘She’s refused to have her blood count checked for nearly two weeks, so phone me if anything changes. Can you manage that?’
‘Yes, yes, don’t worry.’ She leans over and kisses my forehead. ‘I’ll look after her.’
Cal and me sit at the kitchen table, and Mum puts the kettle on, finds three cups amongst the dirty ones in the sink and swills them under the tap. She reaches into a cupboard for tea bags, gets milk from the fridge and sniffs it, scatters biscuits on a plate.
I put a whole Bourbon in my mouth at once. It tastes delicious. Cheap chocolate and the rush of sugar to my brain.
‘Did I ever tell you about my first boyfriend?’ Mum says as she plonks the tea on the table. ‘His name was Kevin and he worked in a clock shop. I used to love the way he concentrated with that little eye-piece nudged into his face.’
Cal helps himself to another biscuit. ‘How many boyfriends have you actually had, Mum?’
She laughs, pushes her long hair back over one shoulder. ‘Is that an appropriate question?’
‘Was Dad the best?’
‘Ah, your father!’ she cries, and clutches her heart melodramatically, which makes Cal roar with laughter.
I once asked Mum what was wrong with Dad. She said, ‘He’s the most sensible man I’ve ever met.’
I was twelve when she left him. She sent postcards for a while from places I’d never heard of – Skegness, Grimsby, Hull. One of them had a picture of a hotel on the front. This is where I work now , she wrote. I’m learning how to be a pastry chef and I’m getting very fat!
‘Good!’ Dad said. ‘I hope she bloody bursts!’
I put her postcards on my bedroom wall – Carlisle, Melrose, Dornoch.
We’re living in a croft like shepherds , she wrote. Did you know that they use the windpipe, lungs, heart and liver of a sheep to make haggis?
I didn’t, and I didn’t know who she meant by ‘we’, but I liked looking at the picture of John o’Groats with its vast sky stretching across the Firth.
Then winter came and I got my diagnosis. I’m not sure she believed it at first, because it took her a while to turn round and make her way back. I was thirteen when she finally knocked on our door.
‘You look lovely!’ she told me when I answered it. ‘Why does your father always make everything sound so much worse than it is?’
‘Are you coming back to live with us?’ I asked.
And that’s when she moved into her flat.
It’s always the same. Maybe it’s lack of money, or perhaps she wants to make sure I don’t over-exert myself, but we always end up watching videos or playing board games. Today, Cal chooses the Game of Life. It’s rubbish, and I’m crap at it. I end up with a husband, two children and a job in a travel agent’s. I forget to buy house insurance, and when a storm comes, I lose all my money. Cal, however, gets to be a pop star with a cottage by the sea, and Mum’s an artist with a huge income and a stately home to live in. When I retire, which happens early because I keep spinning tens, I don’t even bother counting what’s left of my cash.
Cal wants to show Mum his new magic trick next. He goes to get a coin from her purse, and while we’re waiting, I drag the blanket off the back of the sofa and Mum helps me pull it over my knees.
‘I’ve got the hospital next week,’ I tell her. ‘Will you come?’
‘Isn’t Dad going?’
‘You could both come.’
She looks awkward for a moment. ‘What’s it for?’
‘I’ve been getting headaches again. They want to do a lumbar puncture.’
She leans over and kisses me, her breath warm on my face. ‘You’ll be fine, don’t worry. I know you’ll be fine.’
Cal comes back in with a pound coin. ‘Watch very carefully, ladies,’ he says.
But I don’t want to. I’m bored of watching things disappear.
In Mum’s bedroom, I hitch my T-shirt up in front of the wardrobe mirror. I used to look like an ugly dwarf. My skin was grey and if I poked my tummy it felt like an over-risen lump of bread dough and my finger disappeared into its softness. Steroids did that. High-dosage prednisolone and dexamethasone. They’re both poisons and they make you fat, ugly and bad-tempered.
Since I stopped taking them I’ve started to shrink. Today, my hips are sharp and my ribs shine through my skin. I’m retreating, ghost-like, away from myself.
I sit on Mum’s bed and phone Zoey.
‘Sex,’ I ask her. ‘What does it mean?’
‘Poor you,’ she says. ‘You really did get a crap shag, didn’t you?’
‘I just don’t understand why I feel so strange.’
‘Lonely, and my stomach hurts.’
‘Oh, yeah!’ she says. ‘I remember that. Like you’ve been opened up inside?’
‘That’ll go away.’
‘Why do I feel as if I’m about to cry all the time?’
‘You’re taking it too seriously, Tess. Sex is a way of being with someone, that’s all. It’s just a way of keeping warm and feeling attractive.’
She sounds odd, as if she’s smiling.
‘Are you stoned again, Zoey?’
‘Where are you?’
‘Listen, I have to go in a minute. Tell me what’s next on your list and we’ll make a plan.’
‘I’ve cancelled the list. It was stupid.’
‘It was fun! Don’t give up on it. You were doing something with your life at last.’
When I hang up, I count to fifty-seven inside my head. Then I dial 999.
A woman says, ‘Emergency services. Which service do you require?’
I don’t say anything.
The woman says, ‘Is there an emergency?’
I say, ‘No.’
She says, ‘Can you confirm that there is no emergency? Can you confirm your address?’
I tell her where Mum lives. I confirm there’s no emergency. I wonder if Mum’ll get sent some kind of bill. I hope so.
I dial directory enquiries and get the number for the Samaritans. I dial it very slowly.
A woman says, ‘Hello.’ She has a soft voice, maybe Irish. ‘Hello,’ she says again.
Because I feel sorry for wasting her time, I say, ‘Everything’s a pile of crap.’
And she makes a little ‘Uh-huh’ sound in the back of her throat, which makes me think of Dad. He made exactly that sound six weeks ago, when the consultant at the hospital asked if we understood the implications of what he was telling us. I remember thinking how Dad couldn’t possibly have understood, because he was crying too much to listen.
‘I’m still here,’ the woman says.
I want to tell her. I press the receiver to my ear, because to talk about something as important as this you have to be hunched up close.
But I can’t find words that are good enough.
‘Are you still there?’ she says.
‘No,’ I say, and I put the phone down.