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The C Word
I can see it in the newsagent’s face. He hands me the lighter like he doesn’t want his fingers to touch mine, like I’ll infect them. “50p, please,” he says. I return the polite smile and hand him fluff covered coins from my pocket. He doesn’t look up as I leave. Sod him. Sod all of them. They don’t know why I did what I did, all they see are my actions.
The morning is frosty and foggy which irritates me no end, one slip on that ground and I’d break a hip and no doubt they’d all be applauding. I can’t have that. So I shuffle carefully, creaking and swaying, to the other side of the main road. We call it that but there’s no more than four shops – the newsagents, the mini supermarket, the hairdresser’s and the Post Office. Everything else is food, bloody food, and pubs. I suppose I could have used the Post Office right in town, which is only a short bus ride away, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to use the one here, it’s more convenient for my knees.
There’s not much of a queue which is a blessing, however there’s a few people who get a good eyeful. I can’t stop them so I don’t bother. I’m not hiding my face, not after all I’ve been through. I wait and watch the cars outside soar past the glass doors. A shadow appears and the bell jangles. I turn to the wall, pretending to show interest in a poster about shipping costs. I hear the clomp of wellington boots and crunch of a plastic mac as she – I glance behind me – joins the queue. The man in front is taking his bloody time, chatting as if it’s a social club.
The breathing behind me isn’t too bad at first but after a while it meddles with my thoughts until I can’t hear anything else. I want to ask if she needs an inhaler but I don’t and she moves closer, her breath on the back of my neck. I don’t want to turn around. The breath is cold.
The nice black lady serves me, she speaks ever so nicely. She must not have heard about my troubles because she always treats me how a person ought to be treated, not like the sad dumpling who normally works here on a Monday does. I pass her my envelope and she stamps it – a condolence card for my sister and the sweets she likes. I do my duty by her even if she never bothers in return. That horrible breathing is still going and I’m glad to be out of there, though I can’t resist a little look. There’s nothing out of the ordinary; clear plastic raincoat, black shoes and a floral head scarf. Can’t see much of the face apart from a nose and that certainly doesn’t look odd.
The day is brighter now and more people are around. I feel them staring and one nudges another and nods towards me. His friend shakes his head and spits on the pavement. I carry on with my head up, their eyes prodding me like fingers. How dare you, I want to scream, you know nothing about me. They wouldn’t do it if they knew about my health. I’ve always been sickly. I was a sickly child.
When I get home I open the gin. I can’t help it. I’d seen on television that quitting smokers keep a pack in the house to remove anxiety so I tried the same, but it doesn’t seem to help. I’m not an alcoholic, I just don’t like worrying whether I can afford drink or if I’m running out so I just keep some in. After the last bout of stomach ache I’d decided enough was enough and put the remaining bottle in the cleaning cupboard and haven’t touched it for a week. I’ve had a shock today though, so I deserve it.
Its deliciously hot on my lips and throat. I spin on my heel, turn on the stereo and dance to a song I’ve never heard. All thoughts of that woman are gone and even the thing I did…no…don’t think about it….listen to the song, focus on the lyrics… I’m dancing and swirling and my drink is spilling…
The door knocks hard, making me think of TV police invasions. I wait to see if they burst in but the knocking pounds once more so I turn the latch and pull it open. Two youngsters in matching purple tabards speak before I can ask what they want, “We’re from Cancer Research. Did you know that just ten pounds a month can buy enough glass slides for a scientist to examine 300 tumour samples down a microscope?” The girl’s face is an open flower.
“Who told you to come here?”
“We’re canvassing this street,” says the boy, “looking for lovely people like yourself.” His eyes are wide and blue and I feel sorry for him because I know what’s coming and I can’t stop it.
“Why the fuck did you come to my house?”
“We’re sorry to bother you,” says the boy, turning to go. The girl wilts like she’s been stepped on.
“I know it’s not your fault,” I’m pointing, “but whichever one of those bastards,” I feel my face contort like an angry primate, “told you to come here you can tell them I don’t care anymore, it’s not getting to me.”
“Let’s go,” the boy tugs the girl’s jumper. They’re dismissing me as a mad woman and, though I can’t blame them, it sets my blood on fire.
“You don’t know what they’re like around here,” I hiss as they retreat from my doorstep, “they’ll never let it go. I have to live with it every day, with them,” the word is a firework in my mouth, “every day. Pamphlets through my door, gossip behind my back…”
“Madam, we’re leaving now,” the boy says as they hurry down the road. I can’t help it, I’m chasing after them.
“You youngsters have no idea,” I’m wailing, I know I am, “just leave me in this place to rot, why don’t you, while others get all the help they need.” I need to stop now. The curtains are actually twitching. My neighbours’ eyes peek at me like a thousand rats in the dark. I turn to them, “that’s right, I’m talking about you, you sanctimonious cretins. I’ve done more with my life than you’ll ever do. I never sat on my arse and pushed out babies, I did something.” And then I ended up here, I don’t say, doing what I did. My tirade has pushed all life from my body. Suddenly I’m an old woman, standing on the pavement, shrieking at my neighbours. I hurry indoors and bolt myself in. I’d fall to my knees crying if I thought they could take it, so instead I go to the sofa where I try to sleep it off.
I’m woken by stone throwing. Is it stones? No, it’s footsteps. They sound larger than children’s feet and something crawls through me. It’s night and the lamps aren’t on. I creep to the window. A hunched figure in a plastic mac and head shawl is making her way down the road. I beg her to walk past my house but, of course, she turns to mine and lifts a hand quivering like an alien tentacle. “No,” I whisper as she knocks once, twice, three times. She’s surprisingly firm, there’s no chance I wouldn’t hear even from upstairs. I still don’t answer, slinking back from the window in case she peers in. She doesn’t, merely waiting a while before turning and wobbling back to wherever she came from.
I switch on the lamp and return to myself. “Bloody cheek,” I mutter. Coming round someone’s house at this time? At our age? I might look like a glamour girl but those days are over. I eye the bottle of gin before putting it back in the cupboard.
When I wake the next morning I think everything’s fine, that I’m waking to a full and happy life. Instead I’m in that room and my breath tastes of gin. I look in the mirror and pull the skin on my face back hard, seeing the grotesque result of a facelift instead of younger features. I sigh and my hands flop to my sides, letting everything go baggy again.
I plan what to do with my day and the door knocks again. I freeze – what does that woman want? I shuffle downstairs and peer through the window, crouching as much as my body allows. When I see who it is I rush to let my sister Claire in, “Heavens, I didn’t know you were coming. I’ve got nothing in.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” her face crinkles. She’s in her fifties and barely molested by age. I hug her tightly, surprised to feel tears falling from both our cheeks. “I just…needed to see you. To do something.”
“Of course you did,” I say. I break away, hopping like a child to the cupboard I’d closed so firmly last night.
“Isn’t it a bit early for that?”
“Yes,” I say, unscrewing the cap, “that’s why we ought to do it. Come on,” I say to her pursed lips, “it’s not like it’s all the time.” Laughing, she gives in, and I splash the clear liquid into two glasses and mix with tonic water, “you have to live a little.”
After she puts her things upstairs we stick to safe topics of the past; old school friends, who turned out well and who ballooned or never married, funny things mum said. Now, though, we also talk about who died. I shiver and pour us another. “Oh, not for me,” says Claire, and I don’t reply, simply pour myself one. I haven’t seen her for so long I can’t lose my temper now. Memories of past disapprovals flash through my mind but I blink them away. We sit together on the sofa.
“Remember when mum had her hair curled and cried because you told her she looked like a microphone?”
“Oh God,” Claire snorts, “poor woman, I can’t believe I said that.” We laugh so much I check my lap for accidents. Nostalgia pools in Claire’s eyes.
“It’s for the best,” I say, “he was in so much pain.”
“Yes.” She pauses, “actually I was thinking about mum and dad.”
“They didn’t get on,” I say, “these things happen.”
“Mum and dad separating, it happens to lots of people.”
“Yes, I know.” She eyes my drink as though she’s just noticed it. I have to stop after this one, I can’t let it get too far. I get up so quickly my knee cracks.
“I’ll make you up a bed.”
The spare room hasn’t been dusted for so long I wonder if she’ll get lung disease, then I imagine her funeral and me giving a speech and crying and everyone telling me how brave I am. I quite enjoy it and have to tell myself not to be so horrid. I take out clean sheets from the airing cupboard and stretch them over the mattress.
Downstairs I make a joke about the love heart pattern wallpaper we had as children. “Oh gosh,” Claire says, “your screaming terrified me that first night. I woke up and all I could hear was mum trying to calm you down while you said, over and over, that the walls were full of holes.”
“I remember thinking something was going to crawl out of them,” I laughed, still uneasy even now. “Did you want to do anything today, pop into town maybe?”
“No,” she wrinkles her nose, “I’ve had a long journey. Could we just stay here?” I tell her I’d be delighted to and we watch daytime TV feeling as if we’re being naughty and playing truant, even though we’re Pensioners and it’s allowed.
The next morning the sun begs us to go outside. I dress quickly and wait for Claire, remembering now that she was always a late riser. I go to the kitchen to make tea, trying to be quiet but I’m all fingers and thumbs, slamming cupboards and dropping the kettle on the way to the sink. Unsurprisingly I hear footsteps going to the bathroom and coming downstairs, and Claire’s in the kitchen all blinky and grumpy. “Cuppa?” I put the already full cup on the table. She drinks while I rabbit on about our plans for today and how nice it is to have someone to talk to. She says nothing and I enjoy our comfortable old routine.
“I’ll get washed and dressed,” she mumbles halfway through my story about a lost cat. I don’t take it personally, she’s always been the same.
The spring day is like a long awaited kiss. I barely feel my knee trouble as we walk into town. “Let’s have a wander round the shops,” says Claire, and of course goes straight to the Cancer Research charity shop. I have no choice but to follow. The plump girl behind the counter looks up, eyes widening when she sees me, watching me follow Claire to the hats. I turn to the wall as much as I can but the girl keeps staring. “What do you think of this one?” Claire asks, checking her reflection in the mirror.
“You don’t sound sure.”
“Yes, you know you suit hats anyway.” I must have sounded cross because she rolls her eyes and puts it back. Two women at the book shelves turn and I recognise one of them. The sight of Beth, my best friend only a few short weeks ago, tears my stomach, and of course Claire decides now is the moment to wander in that direction. I feel like I’m fighting through a deadly jungle and hang onto a clothes rack, doubling over. Beth’s face is pink with horror when she sees mine. I’m falling.
“Margie,” my sister’s holding me up, “come on, let’s go back.” She’s all softness and concern as she leads me home, I could curl up and sleep in it. However,once we’re indoors, she hardens, “what happened?”
“The people around here are just so…small minded.” She raises her eyebrows. “I tried to make friends when I moved here, I really did, but there’s only so much a person can do when others won’t make the effort.” She sighs and I’m sure she feels bad for me again. I want to hug myself, it’s such a nice feeling. “That woman in the shop, she was the worst. Friends for quite a few weeks, we were, since shortly after I moved here. Then one day she made a new friend and…that was that.” I wait for her to reassure me, to put her hand on mine, anything. Instead she looks away. How often can a person be rejected and stay sane?
“She just stopped talking to you for no reason?” She sounds sceptical.
“Didn’t you notice her trying to say hello? You’d turned away. She seemed nice enough to me.” I can’t believe what I’m hearing. I want to tell her the whole story but my mouth doesn’t open. She’s my sister, she should be on my side no matter what. “It was the same with Helen, and what’s her name before that, thick and thieves and suddenly…”
“I don’t know why you’d bring up Helen,” I fume, “you know how much she upset me.”
“Margie,” Claire puts her hands on my shoulders, “I’m just trying to talk, to have a conversation. You know,” she speaks carefully, as if to a terminal patient, “Helen asks about you. I saw her last Thursday…”
“I don’t care.” I go to the cupboard and pour a drink, not even bothering to make it a small one.
“I need you to listen,” Claire’s raising her voice now, “Helen said all she wanted was a break from you, time to see her own family.”
“What sort of friend leaves a person when they’re desperately ill?” The pain of it, the rejection, boils my stomach.
“Your illnesses, it’s always about your illnesses,” she growls like something feral. “Dad left because he knew there was nothing wrong. All those years mum spent with you in the hospital, all those wasted years.” It’s vicious. It’s vile. She’s a harpy. I weep, I cover my ears with my hands. Claire rushes to me and pulls them away. Why is she doing this? “Margie,” she says, “for God’s sake, my husband just died.” I can’t believe it, she wants sympathy now? I turn away and stare at the wall. “I think we’ve said everything,” she says quietly, letting go of me, “this visit was a mistake.”
“Too true,” I slump down in my chair and listen to her pack upstairs. She’s gone when I wake in the morning.
I switch channels again and again, settling on one thing before turning to another. The house is silent. My knees ache horribly and I drink to soothe them. I watch the day fade. I see Beth’s face, picture her lips gleefully whispering my secret into ear after ear. I’m furious and I decide it’s time. I dial her number, dry heaving with fear. “Hello?” her voice is as cracked as an old record.
“Oh.” The silence is so deep I could fall down it.
“Beth, I…I saw you in the charity shop yesterday.”
“Oh yes. How are you?” It’s a ridiculous question, considering.
“I’m OK. Beth,” I know now what it feels like to have a heart attack. I imagine the paramedics carrying me out and the neighbours watching, concern and regret on their faces, “I know it’s been a long time since we spoke, but I need you to tell everyone that you lied about…what happened when we last saw each other.”
“What? Tell everyone I… I have never breathed a word of it to anyone. Even if I had decided to, it would not have been a lie.”
“But…the whole town knows.” Every disgusted look I’ve received, every rude word and every whisper passes my eyes like a dirty film reel.
“Well it didn’t come from me. Breast Cancer, you said, those were the exact words you used at Christmas. Six weeks I looked after you. Six weeks.” I remember those six wonderful weeks. She’d read to me and I was a child with my mother again.
“No,” I say, “it was a lump but it wasn’t Cancer, I hadn’t had the results.”
“You’re still doing it! You…said…Cancer, before you changed your story I don’t know how many times. Your hair…it was shaved. It hadn’t fallen out, it was shaved.”
I remember that afternoon, her lilac jacket on the back of the tea shop chair, the way she looked at me as if she were pretending to be a detective. It was so calculated the way she’d organised a meeting just to bamboozle and accuse me. “How could you?” she’d said. Her voice had been low, she hadn’t wanted to make a scene. I hang up now, my thoughts spiraling. She hadn’t told anyone, nobody knows what I did. Each stare, each whisper, no longer seems so clear.
It’s dark outside. I hear the footsteps and then she knocks. I don’t want to go at first but I know now she won’t leave me alone. I move slowly but she’s still waiting, head down, plastic mac wrapped tightly around her. She looks up with a face I see every day and I feel sick, but not as much as when she opens her jacket. She cradles the tumour on her belly like a baby. I want to run but I don’t, instead allowing her to take my hand. I follow.
Madeleine Swann’s novella, Rainbows Suck, was published by Eraserhead Press and her first collection by Burning Bulb. Her short stories have appeared on The Wicked Library podcast and in various anthologies. Find out more at her website or follow her on Twitter.
Image: Wellcome Images