I’ve written short stories for years, so I thought I’d post one up here. It could not be more different in tone and style to my novels.
A Bumpy Ride
I realised the passenger’s predicament as he got onto the tube. Our carriage was almost empty: the preserve of mothers like me with spare time on their hands, shift workers and the unemployed. He was about forty I’d guess – thin and rather gaunt. His hair was dark and curly and he sported a neatly-trimmed beard. A Cypriot perhaps, or maybe Clerkenwell Italian maybe. But third generation if so, the solar predations of British life blanched onto his skin. The face was intelligent but agitated and his nostrils flared every now and again, as though an unpleasant thought had occurred to him. His woollen jumper was a touch ragged and he wore tracksuit bottoms, the latter garment never the sign of a man riding high on good fortune. When our eyes met I did that funny thing which is not quite a nod of greeting, nor even the bat of an eyelid, but something subtler: the tiniest flicker of recognition that another human being is in our presence. It’s all I allow myself on the wretched underground, and I sometimes worry even this is not reserved enough and my fellow passengers will wonder who this crazy old bat is with her bangles and her ethnic jewellery and her predilection for the colour purple. But when I find myself looking at a stranger I can’t bring myself to ignore them, as though an inanimate object has been dumped onto the seat opposite. It doesn’t seem right. The passenger responded in non-committal fashion and stared out of the window. A rough blur of grey-black-blue rushed past, the exact hue of a jar of water after I’ve washed my paintbrushes in it all morning.
Barely had he sat when his left arm began slowly rising upwards – the movement was quite unconscious – to fondle a spot on his neck. It was no crutch of comfort, that much I could see. The anguish was conducted from out of his neck, through his fingertips and up his arm until it bloomed across his face. His mouth opened a centimetre in an expression of pain and his hand shot back to his lap. The action had taken five seconds from start to finish and he seemed oblivious it had even occurred. He continued staring into the fast-moving murk, head bobbing as the carriage rattled across the sleepers. I know what you’re about, I thought.
We pulled in to King’s Cross, where there was a surge of passengers. A Ugandan lady in her thirties wearing an Alice band and an olive turtleneck sat down next to him and produced a Reader’s Digest. You don’t see people reading that on the underground very often nowadays! At the other end of the carriage two fraught adults were shepherding a Portuguese school trip on board, all braces and shiny puffer jackets and perfect skin, the train full of laughter and Latin yells of excitement. The newcomer looked up from her reading, took in the scene and smiled at me sweetly. A nanny or a church-going wife. I responded in kind. The hubbub had died down and the train laboured from the platform, floor heaving slowly beneath us – reluctant at first, like sand as it begins sliding before picking up pace. I looked back at the man, knowing what was to come. And yes, sure as night follows day, the hand began its ascent.
It crept along his knee like a spider and up his thigh where it paused for a moment, fluttering in the air. There was a tensing of the sinews, then surrender. Again, the battle had been entirely unconscious. He winced, and the hand began its inexorable climb, like the rising of flood waters against a dam. But this time capitulation was complete. His eyes closed and he began teasing and probing that spot on his neck, fingers kneading something under the skin, something no bigger than a cherry stone. The exploration became urgent; anguish spurted across his brow once more; his eyes opened and he realised what he was doing, like a man awaking from lurid slumber. At once his hand shot back to his lap.
The reason I knew the nature of this man’s torment with instant and monochromatic certitude was that I was going through exactly the same thing myself. Three weeks previously, while washing in the bath, I too had felt something in my neck. Two little blobs, each the shape of a bisected pea. The texture was like jelly – but firmer – and I could oscillate them with my fingertip. I felt instantly sick.
It took me three days to pluck up the courage to visit my GP. Dr Cabral is a Brazilian in his fifties, squat and rather podgy, with a high forehead and small, studying eyes. I have always found him to be extremely thorough.
“It’s probably nothing,” I told him with a downward glance. “But I’ve found these little bumps on my neck.”
“Right,” he replied. “Well, it’s always best to get these things checked out. Let’s have a look.”
He produced a pair of latex gloves and carefully inserted his short plump hands into them. Then he leaned in close and began fiddling with my neck; I could feel the alien texture of the rubber as he massaged the bumps backward and forward. The adrenaline that had been building all morning now surged through me uncontrollably. My throat was dry and I swallowed hard. The latex-covered fingers danced back like a startled fairy; then they resumed their examination. From the corner of my eyes I could see his him out of focus, still transfixed on my neck. I wished he would say something. It was like the moment before a camera shutter fires – the definition of infinity.
Finally sat back down and folded his arms.
“I think we need to get this checked out,” he said.
It felt like I’d been punched in the stomach.
“What do you think they are?” I asked.
“They’re swollen lymph nodes.”
“What does that mean?” I said, although I’d read enough magazines to know the implications perfectly well.
“Lymph nodes can swell up for a whole number of perfectly innocent reasons,” he said. “It could just be a minor infection you had.”
“Then it could be nothing?” I asked.
“It could be,” he said in a voice that betrayed no inner judgement. “But just in case we need to get you a scan – and possibly insert a needle into them to take a sample.”
Now I was petrified.
“But what do you think?” I implored. “Does it feel innocent to you?”
Then came the killer sentence.
“I know what you want me to say,” he replied as gently as he could. “You want me to say this is not cancer-related. But I can’t do that right now. That’s why we need to get the tests done.” He smiled. “I’ll mark the form ‘urgent’, so you don’t have to wait too long.”
This was anything but reassuring.
When I left the surgery I actually did that thing where you will yourself to wake up in case it’s a nightmare. And torture is not strong enough a word to describe the next few weeks. Thumbscrews and electrodes can’t be much fun, but no device of devilry invented by man can compare to having your neck on the block like that.
I think what is quite so terrifying about cancer is that it comes from inside you. It’s not like being hit by a car or having meningitis, which invades your body from without. Rather it’s your own DNA that sets about destroying you – splurging out rock-hard matter like a confused TV signal into your very self until vital organs are constricted into collapse.
I know it’s rather fashionable as a parent to say your first thought was for the kids. How to break it to them, the thought of not seeing them grow up, et cetera et cetera. Perhaps I’m a bad mum, I don’t know. But I have to admit my first thought was for me – for my survival, for my poor age-worn body. I was terrified of dying, to put it frankly. And whenever I read about these mothers whose only thought was for their offspring I can’t help but suspect them of being bad liars.
Then there were the bargains with God.
I know it sounds barmy. I mean, if there is some nebulous deity floating around on high, is he really the type to strike deals? I doubt it. But that’s easy to say from the sidelines. When you are locked into a desperate battle with fear then take it from me, haggling with the almighty is never far away. It ranged from the practical (if this is benign, I will volunteer for Age Concern each Sunday and drive old people to the lunch club) to the absurd (if I walk the long way to the tube thus proving my new devotion, I will be spared). There were the sudden moments of clarity, when I knew it was nothing to worry about. (What, me? Snatched away now, with all those decades unlived and my young-ish family and my plans for the future? The very idea is ridiculous!) But there was also the terror that could descend at any moment. By some blissful nostrum I might have forgotten all about it for an hour or two, only to remember my predicament afresh (Oh-good-God-this-is-actually-happening-to-me). Then the fear is a physical thing; it grips you by the neck and squeezes the air from your throat. And oh, the hours I spent exploring every millimetre of those accursed bumps. I knew their shape like I do the back of my son’s head.
I had lost myself in my thoughts. And when I glanced up the man’s hand was back in position and working away, frantic now. We made eye contact for the second time; the hand fell back into his lap. His gaze was dark and shiny, and I thought perhaps he could sense that I knew. I wondered if I should say something. Offer my support, give him my telephone number, tell him I understood.
To my shame, I said nothing. The decorum of the tube, the accumulated experience of thousands hours in the catacombs of London; they forbade me. Instead, I gave him a rather simpering smile that I hoped projected strength and succour. He probably thought I was loopy. The man looked at me confusedly and stood up; I felt myself blush. I’d evidently freaked him out to the point where he was making a dash for it. But then the train begin to slow, re-entering the atmosphere of our capital, so to speak. And a female voice announce with robotic coolness: “This is Warren Street. Alight for University College Hospital.”
At the announcement all the darkness flooded back into the gentleman’s face once more. He turned away – the crazy middle-aged lady opposite him forgotten forever – and half walked, half scampered down the train to an appointment with destiny.
The last I saw of him was as he stalked along the platform when the tube pulled away: grim-faced, one hand in his pocket, the ball of the other massaging his lower cheek with worry, pivoting on his thumb which was in fixed position on his lump.
My own scan followed ten days later. The doctor lubed up my neck, slapped on the ultrasound reader, took one look at the screen and told me I had nothing to worry about. Relief unbounded! But I have never forgotten the other man on the tube that day. And I will always wonder if he got the all clear as well.