One of the things I am going to do in my retirement (if I get any encouragement) is write fiction. Here is the first page.
Leukaemia isn’t a children’s disease. That’s just the fund-raisers’ bullshit. The pathetic little girl with no hair and black rings round her eyes makes good advertising copy, but it’s nowhere near the truth. Sure, we can cure a lot of kids these days, but mostly it’s a disease of old people.
The guy in front of me was typical. At seventy-four going on a hundred and fifty, he was grey and getting greyer. The bead of sweat on his upper lip could have been nervousness, but probably it was part of his illness. I’m sure it wasn’t because he recognised me. How could he? I’d grown up since then.
I’d recognised his name at once. Ronald Gottings – Ronnie; it’s unusual enough to encounter only once in a lifetime. I tried to recall his face as it was then, but it wouldn’t come. Memory is capricious.
It wasn’t my earliest memory; that would have been a visit to my great-grandmother’s house. She died before I was two and I can’t envisage her at all. I remember sitting on my daddy’s knees (I was still in napkins) and being asked if I wanted to play the piano. Who knows what a piano is when you're less than two years old? I was more interested in the radio on top of it, made of cream-coloured Bakelite. I knew I wasn’t allowed to touch the radio. Was “piano” like “radio” another word for wireless? I was confused and embarrassed and kept silent, which irked Daddy because he was there to show off his clever blond baby to Mummy’s grandmother.
I heard later that there was Jewish money there, but we never saw any of it. Mummy had skivvied there during the thirties, washing the old lady’s feet because she was too fat to reach them, and scrubbing the floors.
We were still very poor when I first met Ronnie. We lived in a one-bedroom basement flat across the road from the park. The Memorial Gardens was their proper name. The centrepiece was twenty-foot granite obelisk on which was carved the names of the fallen in the Great War. When I first met Ronnie they were writing the names of those killed in the second War and people were beginning to worry if there would be room enough for those killed in the next one.
The flat was very dark, quite cramped for the four of us – my baby sister had been born by then – and we had no garden, just a small yard surfaced with red house bricks and drain covers. We played in the park. There was next to no traffic then and always plenty of kids about. I guess there were bats and balls, and older girls who took us for walks. I was still a very pretty kid and more available than dolls. Ronnie was someone that the older boys talked about. He’d been to the war and come back.
I first saw him sitting on one of those green slatted park benches they used to have. He was surrounded by the other boys and smoking a Woodbine. I still can’t bring his face back. His jacket had leather patches on the elbows and his trousers were brown corduroys. The trouble with memory is trying to work out how much is true. Are we remembering what happened or simply our last memory of it? It’s like that prompt that comes up when you close down your word processor. Do you want to save the changes you made to this document? You didn’t know you’d made any changes. How much do we corrupt a memory every time we take it out and look at it before we put it away again? Alright, I couldn’t swear to the leather patches but I’m certain of the corduroys.
He seemed very tall, then. He wasn’t tall now, barely five foot seven, and stooped shorter. His doctor’s letter told of heart disease and alcohol abuse. His fingers told me the Woodbine habit had never died. His wife had had him back a fortnight previously. He’d been away for just a month this time. The tobacco and stale sweat smell were very familiar to me. Smokers get leukaemia twice as commonly as non-smokers.
There is no easy way to break the news. “Mr Gottings, I’m afraid that you’ve got leukaemia. I’m very sorry.”
His wife sucked in her breath and started weeping, but he said nothing. He still stared at the desk and wouldn’t meet my eyes.
“There are several types of leukaemia. This one is called acute myeloid leukaemia. We call it AML for short. I’m afraid it’s one of the worst sort.”
Funny how we use that word “afraid”. What was I afraid of? Not of Ronnie Gottings, though I had been once. Afraid of breaking bad news? I’d done it so many times. Afraid of hurting Ronnie? Afraid of Ronnie’s retribution? Better drop the “afraid”.
“Leukaemia is a sort of cancer of the blood cells. It grows in the bone marrow. You need to make about three million blood cells every second. Because the leukaemia is growing there you can’t make the good cells. Because you’re short of good white cells you’re liable to infections. You can’t make enough red cells either, that’s why you’re feeling tired and short of breath.”
“Is that where the white cells eat up the reds?”
They always say that. His wife was younger than him by more than twenty years, younger than me, even. She had that faded pepper and salt hair and slightly sagging skin that you see on women who have started to make an effort again after years of not trying. She’d put on a smart navy suit to contrast with Ronnie’s scruffiness.
He spoke for the first time. “Am I gonna die, doc?”
We’re all going to die. They ask us that stupid question as if we were soothsayers. Doctors see it as a trap; if we say they have a year, they die next week and the relatives complain. If we tell them they’ll be dead in a month they live for a year out of spite.
“They told me I’d die when I had the by-pass operation.” See what I mean.
“What have you done with your life? What was your job?”
“I’ve travelled a lot. Africa, Bangkok. Got the taste for it in the army.”
“You were in the war?”
“We all were, weren’t we?”
Let me know if you think I should continue.