Tuesday, 29 November 2011
WHO'S NEXT PLEASE?
A short story about love and death.
WHO'S NEXT PLEASE
The cancer arrived with Christmas. Just when the whole world, it seemed to Peter, was making plans for cocktails and elaborate festive season meals. And everyone was talking about extravagant presents.
Someone at the golf club was taking his wife to New York. Just to see a play.
And there, on the twenty fourth of December, pulsating amongst the daily dose of cards, was a plain brown envelope.
They both knew what it was.
‘Well, I suppose I should open it shouldn’t I?’ Molly said.
Peter looked at Molly. He knew it wasn’t really a question, but he didn’t know what to say.
So he said to himself: ‘Thirty eight years, and I don’t know to say’.
A friend gave Molly a book. It was all about Cancer. Peter thought it was simply about death and dying. ‘Well, the more you know about it, the less there is to be afraid of, I suppose,’ she said. Peter didn’t agree. But he didn’t say so. Because he was afraid.
Molly told Peter she’d heard this program on the radio. She always listened to Woman’s’ Hour. It had become a ritual. ‘A panel of experts. Really interesting and informative, it was. Discussing oncology. You know, cancer,’ she told him
He did know. Everyone knew that word these days. But he didn’t want to know.
‘Their conclusion,’ she said, ‘their overall advice, to help you cope, was to get your house in order. And you do this by writing things down. Getting ready, I suppose.’
Peter thought it was a funny conclusion for experts to come to.
‘In a letter preferably,’ Molly went on. ‘They called it a letter of wishes. Who to contact? And who does the contacting. What music do you want? What flowers? Cremation or burial? What kind of coffin? How you’d like to be dressed.’
Peter thought the question about what clothes you’d like to wear when you were dead quite bizarre. Then he upset Molly by saying, ‘My car fixing overalls will do me. Or my old gardening outfit. You know my tatty rugby jumper with all the holes and the jeans with all the stains.’ He’d meant it as a kind of comic relief. But Molly glared at him. She obviously didn’t see it that way. Not in the least.
Then she went on. ‘A really good, pragmatic way to do things, I thought. There’s even a chapter on what to do with the pets.’
‘We don’t have any pets.’
‘Peter! Stop it! Don’t take everything I say so literally.’
Peter shrugged. She saw that he didn’t like the subject, but she was determined to go on. She adopted a softer tone. ‘Look darling, their checklist is supposed to help you. Well, to help those who remain behind.’ She started to get flustered. ‘You know, darling, after I’m gone you won’t know where anything is. Our will. My list of telephone contacts. All the bank details. You know you don’t know any of these details, and you’ll find it useful if we get all these things together.’
But Peter didn’t want to go on. To discuss it any further. So they didn’t..
Cakes started arriving. With women attached. Others invariably arrived to eat the cake. Peter thought they seemed to be trying to turn cancer into a birthday party.
He eavesdropped at the door one day. He heard them discussing miracle cures based on weird and wonderful concoctions. The kernel in apricot pips. Shark cartilage. Various teas brewed from strange sounding leaves. And how meditation and mind over matter had cured even the worst cancers. He was somewhat relieved when Molly rejected all these ideas. He hoped it was because he’d always called this kind of thing harebrained. But he was exasperated with her fatalism. ‘Well there’s an end to the road for everyone, I suppose.’ He hated hearing that. And he hated the frame of mind she was slipping into.
Penny phoned to tell them she was planning a trip. But it was difficult. School terms had to be respected. And Brian couldn’t get away. The oil crisis had him in its coils. He spent more time at t he office than at home. Even weekends. Strapped to his desk. Or in constant meetings. Or on conference phone hook ups at ridiculous hours. Or traveling somewhere. So she might come on her own, she said.
Typical, thought Peter when Molly told him. He had to bite his tongue to stop himself saying it out aloud.
Peter ducked into a bar near the hospital one day while he was waiting for Molly. All he wanted was a quick drink, but he met Donald and Ralph. They were from the club. They were embarrassed and so was he. Then they asked him about Molly. He saw that they were trying to be kind - not intrusive.
‘Oh, OK, she’s OK, I suppose. She’s with the doctor right now. You know, her weekly checkup.’
There was a long pause. Silence. He tried to think of something to say. Then he remembered a joke about medical tests.
‘Reminds me about that one where the guy goes to a doctor,’ he started telling them. ‘We’ll have to do some tests, the doctor says. I’ll need samples of your blood, your semen, your urine and a stool sample. So I suggested that I just leave my underpants at reception.’ His friends just stared at him. Neither of them laughed.
‘I met Donald and Ralph earlier,’ he told Molly later. ‘I told them that joke about the doctor who wants to do more tests. You know, the one with the underpants. Talk about a lead balloon.’
Molly smiled. ‘I do love you darling, but you’ve never been able to tell a joke,’ she said. ‘They probably weren’t sure if you were telling a true story or not. So there was a time lag until they realized it was supposed to be funny. And by then it was too late. To laugh, I mean. Could that have been it, do you think?’
Peter hid from the vicar. ‘Platitudes and religious mumbo jumbo is not what I’m in need of now,’ he told himself. Then he slipped out of the back door and went on a long walk. It was cold and wet, and Molly laughed at him when he got back. The vicar had gone, and they made fun of what he’d said. ‘Just keeping in touch with his flock, he told me,’ she said. ‘His wayward flock is what he meant. But it’s his job, I suppose.’
January was insufferable. As usual, Peter thought. Such a long haul to the spring. And three long months until the clocks changed. The weather was appalling. Snow and ice with a vengeance. Even driving was dangerous. Or so they said on the television.
Molly was involved in a further series of tests. Presumably they would lead to a further series of treatments. It was a long drive to he hospital. And parking was always difficult. But it was the waiting that got to Peter. He’d go shopping, but that didn’t take long. He avoided the pubs. Driving was difficult enough without the problem of drowsiness. A second hand bookshop became his salvation. He spent hours there while he waited. And he always found several books he wanted to read. He was reading the dust cover of one when he got to the crossing. As he stepped onto the road, he heard the car. It was probably going too fast. He thought he was safe on the zebra’s stripes. He heard a loud crack as his leg broke. He wondered why the bonnet was so slippery. When his skull crashed through the windscreen the light went out in his head.
Ten years went by. Slowly at first, but more and pleasantly as the months slipped past and memories faded. Then Molly moved in with a friend. It wasn’t a sexual relationship, and she often thought of Peter.
They went on several pleasant holidays, Molly and her new partner who wasn’t her sexual partner. Sometimes by bus and once on a cruise. But Molly didn’t like the sea, although she liked the ship. It was expensive, but she had realized that she was a wealthy woman and could do as she pleased. Within reason.
Molly didn’t see the grand children as often as she would have liked to. The tyranny of distance and the rigour of travel were a heavy price to pay. And the boys’ own growing up commitments always manage to get in the way. Cricket tours, school camps, holidays with their friends. And Brian was always so, so busy. ‘Peter had the measure of Brian, I suppose,’ she admitted to herself one day.
But it was a very enjoyable and easy life. Molly read. They played golf, and they ate out a lot. ‘Probably too often, Molly thought, but then, what the hell? I’m not looking for another partner. That would be much too hard at my age.’
One night Molly woke up suddenly. She did not know why. It had never happened before. At first she was a little alarmed. Mainly because she felt slightly short of breath. But only slightly. And then gradually her breathing seemed to return to normal. But her arms were tingling. Or was it only one? Or was it only her hand?
Eventually she relaxed and thought about reading. She put the bedside lamp on and looked around for her book. But then she noticed that the globe seemed to be pulsating. The filament, that’s what it’s called isn’t it? It was glowing brightly. Then it appeared to grow smaller. She watched in fascination as the light moved away from her. Into the distance. Further and further, becoming smaller and smaller. Until it was just a pinprick of brightness in the blackness of her mind.
Then the light went out. Forever.
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