© Mike Finn 2011
“The doctor will see you now.”
Will she? I doubt it. She will see my case history, my test results and my short, painful future but she will not see me. I no longer permit myself to be seen.
“Mr Doyle, please take a seat.”
She waits for me to ask but I’ve already seen the answer in her eyes. To her credit, she does not look away and she does not smile.
“No surprises then?” I say, automatically keeping the tone light, as if we were discussing this week’s football results.
“No. The latest tests confirm the earlier prognosis.”
I know I should be asking questions: is she sure the results are accurate? Is there anything else that can be done? How long do I have left?
I stay silent. I am not being petulant. I’m not in denial. I researched these questions weeks ago. Now the data is in and there is nothing left to ask.
“Would you like to discuss your palliative care options?”
Palliative from the Latin palliare, to cloak. I image the opiates in my bloodstream folding themselves around my consciousness like a cloak against the wind, keeping the pain away, offering me sleep as a benign segue into no longer needing to wake.
“Thank you, Doctor.” I force a smile. “I’m familiar with the drill.”
“Of course, your wife…” she stops herself a moment too late.
“Yes. The Macmillan nurse was such a comfort to her. I have their contact information.”
Perhaps relieved not to have a tearful patient on her hands, the Doctor does not spot the omission in my statement. I have made no promises. Except, of course, to myself.
“Good bye, Doctor. Thank you for everything that you’ve done.”
“Good bye, Mr Doyle.”
I wonder then, when she takes my hand in her firm grip for the last time, if she has spotted my omission and perceived my intent.
She nods at me and releases my hand. To my surprise, it seems that the Doctor did see me after all.
I don’t drive anymore; my bouts of nausea are too unpredictable. I can’t face being on a crowded bus, so I take a taxi home. By the time I arrive I’m bone-tired, even though it is still only mid-morning. I pay the driver and then let myself rest for a moment against the half-full skip outside my house. The skip has been painted with what I think of as pre-emptive graffiti: lurid colours, applied with more enthusiasm than skill, depicting strange emaciated figures that remind me of cave paintings.
“Having a house-clearing before you move out are you?”
Bob, my neighbour, never hesitates to state the obvious and frame it as a question.
“Very wise. Very wise,” he continues, not waiting for a response. “It’s a mistake to try and take everything with you when you go.”
This statement is so grimly apt that it makes me smile.
“Where I’m going,” I say, “you really can’t take it with you.”
“That small is it?”
I resist the urge to say “Coffin sized”. I’m the one who decided to hide my illness from the world. It’s too late to get sniffy about a lack of empathy now.
“Still,” Bob says, keeping the conversation going without my help, “I can see that a house like yours is way too big to be rattling around in on your own.”
He’s right of course, but for the wrong reasons; it is not the size of the house that matters, but its emptiness. This was never my house. It was our house; Annie’s and mine. She made it a home. Without her in it, it became rooms full of stuff I didn’t need and memories I couldn’t leave.
Bob has stopped talking. Something in the skip has distracted him. Ah, the barbecue. In a rare he-man moment, shortly after we first moved in, I decided that meat would taste better if I cooked it on a primitive grill in the garden rather than in Annie’s state-of-the-art kitchen. I used it twice before I saw the error of my ways; the main error being that it took forever to clean the damn thing after it was used.
“You’ve got some good stuff in there,” Bob says, sounding more hopeful than reproachful.
“If you see anything in the skip that you want, just help yourself,” I say.
“Thank you. That’s very generous of you.”
Bob immediately leans into the skip and fishes out the barbecue. Then he starts to scan the rest of the items with all the concentration of a hunter stalking prey.
Home. Or what used to be home when Annie lived here. Now it feels more like a waiting room. It is a place with too much past and too little future to provide comfort in the present.
In the two years since Annie’s death I’ve grown used to be being greeted by silence when I come home, but while everything was as Annie left it, I could imagine that I would find her in the kitchen making me a soup for supper, or watering the herbs she grew in terracotta pots on the patio.
Now the house has been exorcised of Annie’s presence and of mine. The upstairs rooms are completely empty. The kitchen, once the heart of our home, shines with sterile cleanliness. The fridge and freezer stand silent and dark with their doors propped open displaying the complete absence of food. All the cupboards are empty. I don’t eat here any more.
I’ve turned part of the living room into a squat, containing a fold-down cot, a pillow, a duvet, a kettle, a cup, a box of English Breakfast Tea and containers for the pills that have become part of my daily routine.
The rest of the living room is taken up with boxes; each carefully labelled according to the method Annie always used. Annie was an expert at packing up the things she loved so that they wouldn’t be lost or damaged. It was an expertise she had had to practice more often than she should have, as I chased my career across Europe.
I took Annie away from the Yorkshire coast and the Victorian house that she had restored from near ruin, to an apartment in the centre of Brussels. I thought the Brussels job was something I couldn’t say no to so Annie packed up the house, vaccinated the dogs and moved us to Belgium. We were supposed to stay a year but the year became two and then it was Munich and after that, Zurich. We were away for seven years before I was posted to London.
It didn’t feel like coming home; Britain had changed in our absence, and neither of us had lived in the South before. In many ways, London was more foreign that Zurich and a lot less friendly. We sold the house in Yorkshire and bought this semi in Crouch End and Annie rebuilt her life once more.
Now I wish we had never left Yorkshire. Still, as Annie used to say, if wishes were horses even the beggars would ride.
I shake off my reverie and concentrate on the stacks of boxes in front of me, making sure that they are ready for collection.
I am aware that packing the material remains of my life into boxes and disposing of them ahead of my death like this will be seen as eccentric. All the literature says that I should be spending my energy fighting the cancer that is killing me. I’m not interested in a fight I know I’ve already lost. I can’t control the cancer but I can control the mess I leave behind.
Cancer killed my parents within a year of each other. I’m an only child, so Annie and I cleared out their house. Years of their lives went on the tip: ribbon-bound letters locked in draws for decades, souvenirs of their travels that had sat on shelves in the parlour for as long as I could remember, watches and spectacles and clothes kept for best and seldom worn. I felt as if I was burying them for the second time.
When I die, no-one will throw my life away but me. I have cleansed this house of the memories it held. Now they exist only in my head. They are the only things I will take with me.
Cleansing the house turned out to be more difficult than I had expected. It was quite hard to find charities to give things away to. No-one has the resources to pick up furniture or crockery and redistribute it anymore and these days second-hand electrical appliances are treated as potential lethal weapons. As for the books, nobody wanted them. Hundreds and hundreds of books. Annie and I spent years of our lives in the worlds created by the books on our shelves. They provided us with a shared imaginary landscape that we used as a reference point for understanding our lives. I couldn’t bear to see them pulped. In the end I arranged for an auction house to take the furniture and I split the books between a market stall selling well-used paperbacks and a “Books For Africa” charity.
Most of the boxes around me contain clothing. I’ve never managed to throw out Annie’s clothes. It’s not that she was a clothes-horse, but she had a distinctive style that showed her playfulness, her love of texture and her perfect colour sense. Losing Annie’s clothes seemed like losing my last link to her vitality and joy. Now her clothes and mine are folded away in boxes, waiting for Oxfam to pick them up tomorrow. I’ve left a spare key with the Estate Agent. The last of the rubbish bags, mainly containing the shredded remains of all the paper records I once thought I could never be without, are ready to be dropped in the skip.
Apart from the bags and boxes, only two things are left: a change of clothes and a sports-bag containing a stack of photograph albums and the equipment that I will need tonight.
I unfold the bed and drop onto it without taking off anything but my shoes. Even though it is only mid-morning, tiredness snatches my consciousness away and I feel myself falling backwards into a well of darkness.
I recognize the cliff-top path instantly, although it’s been years since I’ve been to Yorkshire. The wind is blowing from the East, bringing with it the smell of the sea and the sound of the waves relentlessly assaulting the cliffs. I know I have to hurry or it will be too late but I don’t know for what. At a bend in the path, I catch sight of her, a hundred yards ahead of me, striding along in her green wellies, hands pushed deep into the pockets of her battered Barbour coat, a Labrador on either side of her and her long red hair streaming behind her like a mane.
I call her name, but the wind snatches my voice away. I move faster but I cannot close the distance between us.
I call again: “Annie!”
She stops and slowly turns her head, looking back over her shoulder towards me. The wind whips her hair around, obscuring her face.
I want to take a step closer but I cannot. I am afraid of what will happen next.
At first it looks as if Annie’s hair has grown inexplicably longer, then I see strands of hair detach from her head and swim through the air towards me like water snakes.
She turns at the waist, one arm extended towards me, fingers spread wide. The wind seems to catch her fingers and not let go. Something that looks like fine sand falling through the narrow waist of an hourglass spirals out from her fingertips. Then her still-obscured face starts to shift and the fine sand follows the strands of hair, heading towards me. The dogs bark in alarm. Annie slowly disintegrates.
I open my mouth to scream. The strands of hair wrap themselves around my head, covering my eyes. Then the fine sand flows into my open mouth, choking me, filling my lungs with what used to be Annie.
I wake with the taste of sand in mouth, my forehead beaded with sweat, my mind drenched in remembered sorrow.
Lunch time has come and gone. This will not do. I have lost more time than I intended. I need to hustle; my taxi will be here at two o’clock. I shake off Annie’s spectre and make myself stand. Frost’s poem comes to mind: I have chosen the path less travelled by and now I have miles to go before I sleep.
I work up a sweat getting the rubbish bags into the skip. I drink some water, take my medication and then stand under the shower for a long time.
At the sink, I shave with care. I will not start this journey looking like a tramp. The the towels, the toiletries and this morning’s clothes go straight into the final rubbish bag.
In the living-room, I put on my last set of clothes: a deep- blue shirt, well-worn Lee Cooper jeans, slip-on boots with Vibram soles and a black leather jacket. Annie told me once that, dressed like this, I was hers. When I asked her what she meant she said, “You become someone-else when you wear a suit.” At the time I missed the unspoken part of her comment: I became someone who was not hers. I spent too much of my life in a suit, today I will be the person that Annie loved. That person was always the best part of me.
By the time the taxi arrives, the final rubbish bag is in the skip, the empty house is locked. I get into the taxi without looking back. Everything that is important is in front of me.