Dad takes my hand. ‘Give me the pain,’ he says.
I’m lying on the edge of a hospital bed, in a knee-chest position with my head on a pillow. My spine is parallel to the side of the bed.
There are two doctors and a nurse in the room, although I can’t see them because they’re behind me. One of the doctors is a student. She doesn’t say much, but I guess she’s watching as the other one finds the right place on my spine and marks the spot with a pen. He prepares my skin with antiseptic solution. It’s very cold. He starts at the place where he’s going to put the needle in and works outwards in concentric circles, then he drapes towels across my back and puts sterile gloves on.
‘I’ll be using a twenty-five-gauge needle,’ he tells the student. ‘And a five-millilitre syringe.’
On the wall behind Dad’s shoulder is a painting. They change the paintings in the hospital a lot, and I’ve never seen this one before. I stare at it very hard. I’ve learned all sorts of distraction techniques in the last four years.
In the painting, it’s late afternoon in some English field and the sun is low in the sky. A man struggles with the weight of a plough. Birds swoop and dive.
Dad turns in his plastic chair to see what I’m looking at, lets go of my hand and gets up to inspect the picture.
Down at the bottom of the field, a woman runs. She holds her skirt with one hand so that she can run faster.
‘The Great Plague Reaches Eyam ,’ Dad announces. ‘A cheery little picture for a hospital!’
The doctor chuckles. ‘Did you know,’ he says, ‘there are still over three thousand cases of bubonic plague a year?’
‘No,’ Dad says, ‘I didn’t.’
‘Thank goodness for antibiotics, eh?’
Dad sits down and scoops my hand back into his. ‘Thank goodness.’
The woman scatters chickens as she runs, and it’s only now that I notice her eyes reaching out in panic towards the man.
The plague, the great fire and the war with the Dutch all happened in 1666. I remember it from school. Millions were hauled off in carts, bodies swept into lime pits and nameless graves. Over three hundred and forty years later, everyone who lived through it is gone. Of all the things in the picture, only the sun remains. And the earth. That thought makes me feel very small.
‘Brief stinging sensation coming up,’ the doctor says.
Dad strokes my hand with his thumb as waves of static heat push into my bones. It makes me think of the words ‘for ever’, of how there are more dead than living, of how we’re surrounded by ghosts. This should be comforting, but isn’t.
‘Squeeze my hand,’ Dad says.
‘I don’t want to hurt you.’
‘When your mother was in labour with you, she held my hand for fourteen hours and didn’t dislocate any fingers! There’s no way you’re going to hurt me, Tess.’
It’s like electricity, as if my spine got jammed in a toaster and the doctor’s digging it out with a blunt knife.
‘What do you reckon Mum’s doing today?’ I ask. My voice sounds different. Held in. Tight.
‘I asked her to come.’
‘Did you?’ Dad sounds surprised.
‘I thought you could hang out in the café together afterwards.’
He frowns. ‘That’s a strange thing to think.’
I close my eyes and imagine I’m a tree drenched in sunlight, that I have no desire beyond the rain. I think of silver water splashing my leaves, soaking my roots, travelling up my veins.
The doctor reels off statistics to the student. He says, ‘Approximately one in a thousand people who have this test suffer some minor nerve injury. There’s also a slight risk of infection, bleeding, or damage to the cartilage.’ Then he pulls out the needle. ‘Good girl,’ he says. ‘All done.’
I half expect him to slap me on the rump, as if I’m an obedient horse. He doesn’t. Instead, he waves three sterile tubes at me. ‘Off to the lab with these.’ He doesn’t even say goodbye, just slides quietly out of the room, student in tow. It’s as if he’s suddenly embarrassed that any of this intimacy happened between us.
But the nurse is lovely. She talks to us as she dresses my back with gauze, then comes round the side of the bed and smiles down at me.
‘You need to lie still for a while now, sweetheart.’
‘Been here before, eh?’ She turns to Dad. ‘What’re you going to do with yourself?’
‘I’ll sit here and read my book.’
She nods. ‘I’m right outside. You know what to look for when you get home?’
He reels it off like a professional. ‘Chill, fever, stiff neck or headache. Drainage or bleeding, any numbness or loss of strength below the puncture site.’
The nurse is impressed. ‘You’re good!’
When she goes out, Dad smiles at me. ‘Well done, Tess. All over now, eh?’
‘Unless the lab results are bad.’
‘They won’t be.’
‘I’ll be back to having lumbar punctures every week.’
‘Shush! Try and sleep now, baby. It’ll make the time go more quickly.’
He picks up his book, settles back in his chair.
Pinpricks of light like fireflies bat against my eyelids. I can hear my own blood coursing, like hooves pounding the street. The grey light outside the hospital window thickens.
He turns a page.
Behind his shoulder, in the painting, smoke innocently rises from a farmhouse chimney and a woman runs – her face tilted upwards in terror.