Thirty-three

I wake to flowers. Vases of tulips, carnations like a wedding, gypsophila frothing over the bedside cabinet.

I wake to Dad, still holding my hand.

All the things in the room are wonderful – the jug, that chair. The sky is very blue beyond the window.

‘Are you thirsty?’ Dad says. ‘Do you want a drink?’

I want mango juice. Lots of it. He plumps a pillow under my head and holds the glass for me. His eyes lock into mine. I sip, swallow. He gives me time to breathe, tips the glass again. When I’ve had enough, he wipes my mouth with a tissue.

‘Like a baby,’ I tell him.

He nods. Silent tears fill his eyes.

I sleep. I wake up again. And this time I’m starving.

‘Any chance of an ice cream?’

Dad puts his book down with a grin. ‘Wait there.’ He’s not gone long, comes back with a Strawberry Mivvi. He wraps the stick in tissue so it doesn’t drip and I manage to hold it myself. It’s utterly delicious. My body’s repairing itself. I didn’t know it could still do that. I know I won’t die with a Strawberry Mivvi in my hand.

‘I think I might want another one after this.’

Dad tells me I can have fifty ice creams if that’s what I want. He must’ve forgotten I’m not allowed sugar or dairy.

‘I’ve got something else for you.’ He fumbles in his jacket pocket and pulls out a fridge magnet. It’s heart-shaped, painted red and badly covered in varnish. ‘Cal made it. He sends you his love.’

‘What about Mum?’

‘She came to see you a couple of times. You were very vulnerable, Tessa. Visitors had to be kept to a minimum.’

‘So Adam hasn’t been?’

‘Not yet.’

I lick the ice-cream stick, trying to get all the flavour from it. The wood rasps my tongue.

Dad says, ‘Shall I get you another one?’

‘No. I want you to go now.’

He looks confused. ‘Go where?’

‘I want you to go and meet Cal from school, take him to the park and play football. Buy him chips. Come back later and tell me all about it.’

Dad looks a bit surprised, but he laughs. ‘You’ve woken up feisty, I see!’

‘I want you to phone Adam. Tell him to visit me this afternoon.’

‘Anything else?’

‘Tell Mum I want presents – expensive juice, loads of magazines and new make-up. If she’s going to be crap, she can at least buy me stuff.’

Dad looks gleeful as he grabs a bit of paper and writes down the brand of foundation and lipstick I want. He encourages me to think of other things I might like, so I order blueberry muffins, chocolate milk and a six-pack of Creme Eggs. It’s nearly Easter after all.

He kisses me three times on the forehead and tells me he’ll be back later.

After he’s gone, a bird lands on the window ledge. It’s not a spectacular bird, not a vulture or a phoenix, but an ordinary starling. A nurse comes in, fiddles about with the sheets, fills up my water jug. I point the bird out to her, joke that it’s Death’s lookout. She sucks her teeth at me and tells me not to tempt fate.

But the bird looks right at me and cocks its head.

‘Not yet,’ I tell it.

 

The doctor visits. ‘So,’ he says, ‘we found the right antibiotic in the end.’

‘Eventually.’

‘Bit scary for a while though.’

‘Was it?’

‘I meant for you. That level of infection can be very disorientating.’

I read his name badge as he listens to my chest. Dr James Wilson. He’s about my dad’s age, with dark hair, receding at the crown. He’s thinner than my dad. He looks tired. He checks my arms, legs and back for bleeding under the skin, then he sits down on the chair next to the bed and makes notes on my chart.

Doctors expect you to be polite and grateful. It makes their job easier. But I don’t feel like being tactful today.

‘How much longer do I have?’

He looks up, surprised. ‘Shall we wait for your dad to be here before we have this discussion?’

‘Why?’

‘So that we can look at the medical options together.’

‘It’s me that’s sick, not my dad.’

He puts his pen back in his pocket. The muscles round his jaw tighten. ‘I don’t want to be drawn into time scales with you, Tessa. They’re not helpful at all.’

‘They’re helpful to me.’

It’s not that I’ve decided to be brave. This isn’t a new year’s resolution. It’s just that I have a drip in my arm and I’ve lost days of my life to a hospital bed. Suddenly, what’s important seems very obvious.

‘My best friend’s having a baby in eight weeks and I need to know if I’m going to be there.’

He crosses his legs, then immediately uncrosses them. I feel a bit sorry for him. Doctors don’t get much training in death.

He says, ‘If I’m over-optimistic, you’ll be disappointed. It’s equally unhelpful to give you a pessimistic prediction.’

‘I don’t mind. You’ve got more of an idea than I have. Please, James.’

The nurses aren’t allowed to use doctors’ first names, and normally I’d never dare. But something’s shifted. This is my death and there are things I need to know.

‘I won’t sue you if you’re wrong.’

He gives me a grim little smile. ‘Although we managed to cure your infection and you’re obviously feeling much better, your blood count didn’t pick up as much as we’d hoped, so we ran some tests. When your father gets back, we can discuss the results together.’

‘Have I got peripheral disease?’

‘You and I don’t know each other very well, Tessa. Wouldn’t you rather wait for your father?’

‘Just tell me.’

He sighs very deeply, as if he can’t quite believe he’s about to give in. ‘Yes, we found disease in your peripheral blood. I’m very sorry.’

That’s it then. I’m riddled with cancer, my immune system is shot and there’s nothing more they can do for me. I had weekly blood tests to check for it. And now it’s here.

I’d always thought that being told for definite would be like being punched in the stomach – painful, followed by a dull ache. But it doesn’t feel dull at all. It’s sharp. My heart’s racing, adrenalin surges through me. I feel absolutely focused.

‘Does my dad already know?’

He nods. ‘We were going to tell you together.’

‘What options do I have?’

‘Your immune system is in collapse, Tessa. Your options are limited. We can keep going with blood and platelets if you want to, but it’s likely their benefit will be short-lived. If you became anaemic straight after a transfusion, we would have to stop.’

‘What then?’

‘Then we would do everything we could to make you comfortable and leave you in peace.’

‘Daily transfusions aren’t feasible?’

‘No.’

‘I’m not going to make eight weeks then, am I?’

Dr Wilson looks right at me. ‘You’ll be very lucky if you do.’

 

I know I look like a pile of bones covered in cling film. I see the shock of it in Adam’s eyes.

‘Not quite how you remembered me, eh?’

He leans down and kisses me on the cheek. ‘You’re gorgeous.’

But I think this is what he was always scared of – having to be interested when I’m ugly and useless.

He’s brought tulips from the garden. I stuff them in the water jug while he looks at my get-well cards. We talk about nothing for a bit – how the plants he bought in the garden centre are coming along, how his mum is enjoying the weather now that she’s outside more often. He looks out of the window, makes some joke about the view across the car park.

‘Adam, I want you to be real.’

He frowns as if he doesn’t understand.

‘Don’t pretend to care. I don’t need you as an anaesthetic.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘I don’t want anyone being fake.’

‘I’m not being.’

‘I don’t blame you. You didn’t know I’d get this sick. And it’s only going to get worse.’

He thinks about this for a moment, then kicks off his shoes.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Being real.’

He pulls back the blanket and climbs into bed next to me. He scoops me up and wraps me in his arms.

‘I love you,’ he whispers angrily into my neck. ‘It hurts more than anything ever has, but I do. So don’t you dare tell me I don’t. Don’t you ever say it again!’

I lay the flat of my palm against his face and he pushes into it. It crosses my mind that he’s lonely. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘You should be.’

He won’t look at me. I think he’s trying not to cry.

He stays all afternoon. We watch MTV, then he reads the paper my dad left behind and I have another sleep. I dream of him, even though he’s right next to me. We walk together through snow, but we’re hot and wearing swimming costumes. There are empty lanes and frosty trees and a road that curves and never ends.

When I wake up, I’m hungry again, so I send him off for another Strawberry Mivvi. I miss him as soon as he goes. It’s like the whole hospital empties out. How can this be? I claw my hands together under the blanket until he climbs back into bed beside me.

He unwraps the ice cream and passes it over. I put it on the bedside table.

‘Touch me.’

He looks confused. ‘Your ice cream will melt.’

‘Please.’

‘I’m right here. I am touching you.’

I move his hand to my breast. ‘Like this.’

‘No, Tess, I might hurt you.’

‘You won’t.’

‘What about the nurse?’

‘We’ll chuck the bed-pan at her if she comes in.’

He very gently cups my breast through my pyjamas. ‘Like this?’

He touches me as if I’m precious, as if he’s stunned, as if my body amazes him, even now, when it’s failing. When his skin touches mine, skin to skin, we both shiver.

‘I want to make love.’

His hand stalls. ‘When?’

‘When I get back home. One more time before I die. I want you to promise.’

The look in his eyes frightens me. I’ve never seen it before. So deep and real, it’s as if he’s seen things in the world that others could only imagine.

‘I promise.’

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