My son in law takes me to the appointment. He picks me up from outside the red-brick bungalow I’ve lived in for the long decade since my husband passed away, then drives the half an hour journey to our nearest hospital. I could have taken the bus, but he insisted on accompanying me. It made sense for him to drive me, he said, and it would do him good to get out of the house, too. I appreciate the gesture, pitying though it is. He knows I don’t like to ask for help, but he also knows that the walk to the bus stop would leave me doubled over these days, gasping and dizzy from the exertion. He pretends this isn’t his reasoning, that he isn’t driving me out of a sense of duty. Kindly, he preserves my dignity. At first, he tells me about my granddaughter’s piano exam, and my grandson’s football match, but for the rest of the drive we are both quiet. We both know what this is about. There is no need to fill silence when there are so many thoughts to untangle. So many of our shared concerns go unspoken.
In the waiting room, I look around and see copies of the two of us paired up on chairs around the room. An elderly gentleman sits with a younger man, another sits with a woman who looks to be in her mid-thirties. The first gentleman starts coughing and slowly, slowly rises from his chair with the younger man’s hand on his elbow. Together they shuffle towards the bathroom, the elderly man still coughing into a tissue as they disappear from view.
One of the women waiting with us shuffles in her seat, her eyes scanning the room. Absent-mindedly, she loops strands of hair around the index finger of her left hand and glances between the wall clock and her shoes. The ticking hands are counting down her time. The laces of her boots were tied by a kindly neighbour who would visit each morning to make her a hot cup of tea and a single slice of buttered toast. Strong flavours only come back up again, staining her tongue with acid and sorrow. The anti-emetics couldn't possibly work if she couldn't keep the pills down. She's fiddling with the tassels on her scarf now. She seems agitated. She is alone here, just as she is alone in bed at night when the worries creep in. Her boots tap a syncopal rhythm on the linoleum of the strip-lit room.
Linda is the receptionist on duty today. She was here when I came for my first appointment, but that was three years ago. I haven't seen her since her daughter became unwell. She is wearing a pink ribbon pinned to a zebra-print nylon blouse. There are photos of staff and patients behind her on a noticeboard, mementos of the many fundraisers the clinic organises every year. The people here join in with those events when they feel helpless; it gives them purpose. There is a leaderboard tacked up alongside the photos, tracking the kind souls who have raised the most money. They have quantified their caring in cheques. A sour smell emanates from one of the doctors' offices as an unfamiliar face is escorted out. A taxi driver waits by the exit to escort the newcomer away. Linda calls my name.
‘Christina?’ She says it like a question. Am I here? Can I really be here?
‘Yes, I’m here.’ I stand. I’m not as bad as the rest of them. Not yet.
My son in law joins me in the doctor’s office. Folders of notes are stacked on the desk: documents of sickness, suffering, survival. Three takeaway coffee cups are discarded in the paper bin. A dictaphone sits expectantly by the computer, waiting to learn every piece of abbreviated bad news that passes through here. The doctor sits forwards in his swivel chair, resting his elbows on his knees and linking his fingers. He sighs deeply. There is a chill in the room and the air is still. I notice I am holding my breath. I know what is coming. We all know what to expect.
‘Christina,’ he starts, ‘How are you holding up?' A box of tissues sits conspicuously between us. My gaze falls to my clasped hands in my lap. This cannot be me sitting here. Those cannot be my hands. This cannot be my body, become so weak and withered. I used to... Steadily, I lift my chin from my chest and meet his eyes. He nods, understanding without words.
'We’ve had a look at your most recent scan, Christina. I’m afraid it’s not good news. Your condition has progressed much faster than we expected. Would you prefer me to be frank with you?’