WHO'S NEXT PLEASE?

A SHORT STORY ABOUT LOVE AND DEATH

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1. A SHORT STORY ABOUT LOVE AND DEATH

 

WARNING: THIS SHORT STORY CONTAINS THEMES THAT MAY OFFEND SOME  READERS.

 

WHO’S NEXT PLEASE?

 

A SHORT STORY ABOUT LOVE AND DEATH

 

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 and exotic holidays.

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 what to say’.

 

A friend gave Molly a book. It was all about cancer. And developing a positive attitude. To face the inevitable. Peter thought it was simply about death and dying.

‘Well, I know you don’t like this kind of thing, none of us does, but the more you know about it, the less there is to be afraid of, I suppose. That’s the theory, anyway,’ she said.

Peter didn’t agree. He thought it was hocus pocus. Uncivilized. Unscientific. Bad medicine. 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. Every day. It had become a ritual. ‘A panel of experts. On female issues. Really interesting and informative, it was. They touched on 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, bottom line advice, if you like, to help you cope, was to get your house in order. And you do this by writing things down. Everything needs to be ship shape. Getting ready, I suppose.’

Peter thought it facile, and 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. Write down a list. And who does the contacting. Write that down too. What music do you want? What flowers? Cremation or burial? What kind of coffin? How you’d like to be dressed. What to do afterwards. Put it all down on paper. There’s been a lot of research into the subject, darling. And that’s what they said.’

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 stains, and the jeans with the holes in the knees.’ He’d meant it as a kind of comic relief. But Molly glared at him. She obviously didn’t see it in that light. 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. The kids’ addresses. All the bank details. Codes and passwords on the computer. You know you don’t know any of these details, and you wouldn’t know where to start looking. So I’m sure you’ll find it useful if we get all these things together. And down in black and white. Beforehand.’

But Peter didn’t want to go on. To discuss it any further. So they didn’t.

 

Cakes started arriving. Regularly. Often with women attached. Others invariably arrived later to help eat the cake. And to take tea. Or decaffeinated coffee. And to stay late. And to delay Peter’s dinner.

Peter thought they seemed to be trying to turn the cancer into a birthday party.

 

He eavesdropped at the door one day. He heard them discussing miracle cures based on strange ideas and weird and wonderful concoctions. Healthy food fusions like lemon and kale. Whatever that was. The kernel in apricot stones. Shark cartilage. Various teas brewed from strange sounding leaves. And how meditation and mind over matter had cured even the most pernicious cancers.

He was somewhat relieved when Molly rejected all these ideas. He’d worried that she might be wavering. He didn’t know why, exactly, but he was relieved at her hard-line skepticism. He hoped it was because he’d always called this kind of thing hare-brained.

But, at the same time, he felt exasperated by her fatalism. ‘Well there’s an end to the road for everyone, I suppose,’ she’d said. ‘Everything’s finite.’

He hated hearing that. And he hated the frame of mind she was slipping into. Getting ready to die.

 

Penny phoned to tell them she was planning a trip. She meant to say goodbye, Peter suspected. But that’s not how she put it. ‘I’ll bring the boys. You haven’t seen them for such a long time. You know, the tyranny of distance and all that.’

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 the office than at home. Even weekends. Strapped to his desk. Or in constant meetings. Or on satellite phone hook ups at ridiculous hours. Or travelling somewhere. To strange sounding places.

So she might come on her own, she said. If she could get the kids organized.

Whatever that meant.

Typical, thought Peter when Molly told him. He had to bite his tongue to stop himself saying it out aloud. Neither of them had ever liked Brian.

 

For her first few consultations Peter went with Molly to see the specialists. But that didn’t last long.

‘I’m sure I’ll be better on my own. You just find something to do, darling. It doesn’t take long, and I’d prefer to go by myself.’

Peter knew why.

‘How long?’ he’d asked the doctor on their first visit.

Doctor Smythe leaned back in his chair.

‘Well, we always start off with conservative treatments,’ he said. ‘No need for any heroic surgery, as I see it. Not at this stage anyway.’

Good God, why did he have to add that? thought Peter.

‘You see, a bit of radiotherapy and the latest medication should do the trick. So that’s how we’ll start.’

‘Sorry doctor, perhaps you misunderstood me. I know it sounds blunt, but I, we, I mean, both of us I suppose, would like to know how much time there is left. What I meant was how long does she have to live? You know, so that we can plan our lives from this point onwards.’

Doctor Smythe sighed. He thought for a while. ‘Well, that’s a question only God can answer.’

Good God, more shaman-ship, thought Peter. Here we have a highly trained scientist, and he’s telling me to put my trust in a deity with supernatural powers whose existence rests, not on empirical evidence or demonstration, but on blind faith alone.

Peter’s thoughts tumbled over each other as they flashed through his mind when Doctor Smythe gave his answer. What on earth are we doing here? What do we pay our health service fees for. How can we place so much trust in a person who believes in this kind of religious clap trap.

‘That was uncalled for darling,’ Molly said when they were walking back to the car. ‘He’s my specialist. And it’s me who has the problem. So why do you insist on being so intrusive? Even obnoxious. He didn’t want a lecture on psychosomatic medicine or the placebo effect. He knows more about that kind of thing than you ever will.’

Peter felt piqued. ‘All I wanted was information. His best estimate, based on empirical evidence. Gained through his solid scientific training. For which, by the way, the taxpayer foots the bill. Meaning us.

‘And I wasn’t expecting that kind of pseudo scientific gibberish, that’s all.’

‘I know all that darling, but comparing God knowing how much time I’ve got left to consulting the Flat Earth Society before going on a long journey didn’t go down well at all. In fact, I’m going to have to work hard to re-establish a relationship with Doctor Smythe. So next time, you can find a bookshop or something. I’ll go to my appointment on my own, thank you very much.’

 

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. Free parking for patients though. So we leave the car there while we do our shopping afterwards.’

There was a long pause.

‘Well, we might as well make the most of it.’

He shrugged, and went on. ‘She’s usually out in an hour or so. And I always nip in here while I’m waiting to read the newspaper.’

Silence. He tried to think of something to say. Then he remembered a joke about medical tests.

‘Reminds me about that one where this guy goes to a doctor,’ he started telling them. ‘He takes his wife with him because he’s hard of hearing. Anyway, the doctor examines him and then says, “We’ll have to do some more tests. I’ll need samples of your blood, your semen, your urine and a stool sample.” But the guy’s almost deaf and he says to his wife, “What did the doctor say?” His wife tell him, “The doctor said you must leave your underpants at reception.”

Neither Ralph nor Donald laughed. They just stared at him.

 

‘I met Donald and Ralph earlier,’ he told Molly when he met her after her consultation. ‘I told them that story about the doctor who wants to do more tests. You know, the one with the underpants. Talk about a lead balloon. I’m not sure whether I told it badly or they just didn’t get it.’

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 right 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. And he really is well meaning.’

 

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. People should exercise caution, and only undertake essential journeys.

Molly was involved in a further series of tests. Presumably they would lead to a further series of treatments. And they would have to wait for a further series of results.

It was a long drive to the hospital. And parking was always difficult. Even though it was free when you eventually found a space.

But it was the waiting that got to Peter. He’d go shopping, but that didn’t take long. He’d decided to avoid the pubs. Especially in the dreadful weather. 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.

 

Molly responded well to the treatment. Or her cancer did. She got on top of it and stayed there.

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 lady 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 grandchildren as often as she would have liked to. The tyranny of distance and the rigour of international travel were a heavy price to pay. And the boys’ own growing up commitments always managed to get in the way of well-intentioned plans. 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 much and too often, Molly thought, but then, what the hell?

No, I’m not looking for another partner, she told herself. Doing my make-up to go out. Making small talk in the car. Trying to keep the conversation going during dinner or after a movie. That would be much too hard at my age. And she surprised herself by adding, And Peter wouldn’t have approved anyway.

 

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, little by little, her breathing seemed to return to normal. But her arms were tingling. Or was it only one? Or was it just 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? Or is it the element? Whatever it was, it was glowing very brightly. But then it started losing its brillance, and it got dimmer and dimmer. She watched in fascination as the bulb moved away from her, taking the light in the room with it. Into the distance. Further and further, becoming smaller and smaller. Until it was just a tiny pinprick of brightness in the blackness of her mind. She wondered what was happening. She concentrated hard. She wanted it back again. To light up her life. So that she could see what was going on again. But all that was left in the far distance was a pinprick of white in the overwhelming darkness.

Then the light went out.

This time forever.

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