The hospital was forty miles away in an unassuming red-brick suburb on the southern fringe of the city. It took an hour to drive there and we were due to meet Valentine at eight. I got up early and made myself some tea and a plate of toast. Harriet was still sleeping but since she had already packed her holdall the night before – nighties, sanitary pads, toothpaste, magazines, several paperback books which I imagined she would never read (since she is not what you would call a reader) – I saw no reason to wake her up.
As I sat there at the kitchen table, looking out at the empty garden and the unilluminated windows of the other essentially similar houses which cluster around our own (we live in the commuter village of M____ in a new-build estate just behind the railway station) I felt for a brief, dreamy moment in a kind of holiday mood, as if the trip we were about to embark on might be a cause of excitement rather than dread. Perhaps I was in denial, or possibly I lack certain necessary qualities – sympathy, imagination, a sense of proportion – which others take for granted. Whatever the reason, as I sat there sipping my tea and glancing up every now and then at the minute-hand of the kitchen clock, I experienced a brief surge of illogical and unconscionable pleasure at the thought of what was to come.
At six thirty or so I began to hear movement from upstairs. After a little while longer the toilet flushed and the landing light clicked on. I stood up, walked over to the sink, washed my plate and mug and put them on the plastic rack to dry. It was getting light outside; the suburban world was taking on detail, becoming itself again. I stood by the window and watched the things I know best – the shrubs and the hedges, the birdbaths, conservatories and trampolines – gradually reappear.
Harriet was already fully dressed when she walked into the kitchen. She had pulled back her hair and put on lipstick and perfume; she was wearing a navy blue trouser suit and a pair of trainers. She looked around for a moment and then shivered.
“I’m freezing,” she said. “Why is it always so cold in this house?”
I touched the nearest radiator then went out into the hallway and adjusted the thermostat.
When I came back into the kitchen Harriet was standing at the sink filling a glass of water from the tap. As she drank she had her eyes closed, and when she’d finished she tilted her head back, groaned and rubbed the back of her neck with her left hand.
“So why the suit?” I asked.
“The suit?” I said again.
She put the empty glass down on the draining board then turned around and looked at me.
“It’s my lucky suit,” she said. Then, after a moment’s thought, she added: “Does it really matter what I’m wearing?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t suppose it does.”
“Right,” she said. “Exactly. It really doesn’t.”
She stared at me then shook her head a few times as if to suggest I was an idiot for even raising the issue of the suit. I thought of saying something back to her but decided not to.
After a moment’s pause, her face reddened and she began, quietly at first, to weep. I stepped across the kitchen, put my arms around her and pressed my nose up against her ear. She started shuddering and gasping for breath; her skin became damp and beneath all that perfume I could smell something sour, even rotten. I thought for a second she might puke into the sink but then her breathing went back to normal and, without saying anything, she pushed me away, turned around and reached for some kitchen roll to wipe her eyes.
Valentine was about my age, perhaps a few years older, slim and short with wavy black hair and a moustache. He wore a dark, pin-striped suit. His bedside manner was cheerful but off-hand.
“We’ll have it all out in no time at all,” he said scribbling wildly on a notepad as he spoke. “Then everything will be perfect again.”
“Will it hurt?” Harriet asked him.
“Some post-operative pain is inevitable I’m afraid, but we will give you something for that. During the operation itself, needless to say, you will be fast asleep.” He glanced up from his notepad and smiled.
Harriet turned pale. Valentine stepped forward and placed his hand gently on her forearm.
“It is quite alright to be nervous,” he said. “It’s a serious operation to be sure, but the procedure is straightforward and the risks are minimal.”
“What are the risks?” I asked.
Valentine looked faintly annoyed by my intervention, as though I had interrupted a moment of intimacy between the two of them.
“Infection,” he said lightly, “haemorrhaging, blood clots, stroke.” His tone implied that such things were barely worth talking about.
“They sound quite serious,” I said.
“Not really, no.” He swivelled round and gave me a condescending grin. “We must focus only on the cancer. That is your wife’s big problem. And once the operation is successfully completed…” He paused for effect and wiped one palm dismissively across the other. “…then the cancer will be completely gone.”
The operation was supposed to last three hours, but lasted almost five . When they brought Harriet back into the room I wondered for a moment if it was really her. She looked distended, sunken, revised, like a poorly remembered version of herself.
“What’s happened?” I asked the nurse. “What did they do to her in there?”
“It was a little more complicated than we thought it would be,” the nurse admitted. “Mr Valentine will tell you about it I’m sure.”
“The surgeons never know what they”ll find until they actually go in there.”
“What do you mean?” I said. “What did they find?”
She smiled but didn’t answer. “Mr Valentine will be here in just a moment and he can tell you everything.” She smiled at me again, made some small adjustment to the shunt in Harriet’s arm and then slipped noiselessly away.
When Valentine arrived a few minutes later he explained that beside the tumour they already knew about they had discovered a number of other smaller tumours that had not shown up in the initial tests. He had removed as many of them as he could find, but there could be others and further surgery might be necessary. His voice was slow and serious and he seemed a different man to the one who had spoken to us so confidently and carelessly a few hours before.
“The tests are good but not perfect,” he said. “I’m afraid we occasionally get an unpleasant surprise.”
He sat down on the edge of the bed and talked for twenty minutes about treatment options and possible side-effects. He spoke softly and tried to keep things straightforward and positive, but it was clear enough to me that behind everything he said, looming like a tidal wave, was the fact that my wife was now dying, and that nothing important could be done to save her.
She woke up an hour or so later and drank some ice water through a straw. When she noticed who I was she managed a croaky hello, then stroked my hand and fell asleep again. I sat by the bed for the rest of the afternoon unable to read or watch television, sunk in my own gloomy and monotonous thoughts. The nurses who came in every half hour to check Harriet’s pulse and blood pressure brought me cups of tea, chocolate biscuits and plates of buttered toast. When it began to get dark they started suggesting I should go and get some rest. “Come back in the morning, darling,” they gently urged, placing their warm reliable hands on my shoulder, squeezing me with the careless intimacy of lovers. “We promise she’ll be safe here with us.”
At about ten o’clock I got my car from the car park and drove the mile and a half to the Mountjoy Hotel where I had made a reservation the week before. After checking in, I took my bag up to the room then went straight to the bar. The bar was no bigger than a normal living room and was empty apart from a middle-aged barmaid with dyed black hair who was sipping a mug of tea and reading a copy of the Daily Express. I ordered a double scotch and a pint of cheap lager. She closed the newspaper and looked at me.
“Bad day, was it?”
“Yes,” I said. “It was.”
She smiled and gave me my change.
“You’ll feel better after a drink then. Everyone feels better after a drink if you ask me.”
I swallowed the whisky down in one and took two long pulls on the pint.
The barmaid smiled again and took another sip of her tea. She was thin and tall with wide-set green eyes and high, sharp cheek-bones. Her skin was pale and her hair was scraped back into a severe pony-tail. As a young woman she would have been sexy, I thought, but now at forty five or possibly fifty she looked worn out and frayed at the edges.
“My wife’s in the hospital,” I explained, “St Dennis’s.”
“Oh I know St Dennis’s,” she said. “I was a nurse there for ten years.”
I couldn’t quite imagine her as a nurse. There was something about her that seemed too disorderly and raw. I wondered if she was lying to me, but couldn’t imagine any good reason why she would.
“So what happened?”
She shrugged. “Long story.”
I ordered another whisky and asked her to get something for herself. She put my drink on the bar in front of me and poured hers into the mug of tea.
“That’s just in case the manager happens by,” she explained with a wink. “Not that the lazy bastard ever would.”
“Cheers.” I raised my whisky glass and she chinked her mug against it.
“Cheers,” she said. “My name’s Deb.”
“So what’s wrong with your wife?”