Singing the Cancer Out - short story
The main difference between my mother and me was our choice of newspaper. I took a stance and I read the associated newspaper. She read whatever was put in front of her. She was balanced in her opinions. She was never swayed by the right-wing ones, the sensationalist ones or the lefty leaning ones. She just picked out the facts and made up her own mind. I had to read the papers that posited things in a way I understood, so I knew the right opinion to have.
We were sat in hospital on her last ever birthday, just her and me and a newspaper I had bought. She read the supplements I often discarded. She read the travel, family and money sections, while I devoured arts and culture for mains, current affairs for dessert. We were mostly silent that day. We didn’t know she had cancer, so we didn’t know what we needed to say to each other yet.
I had bought her a cake. I knew she wouldn’t eat anything more than a thumbful. Nor her fellow patients. They were asleep, on a steady supply of oxygen or miserable. I cut up the rest of the cake and took it to the nurse’s station to sweeten them that they might take better care of my mum. I said this and as one nurse took a small bite of the chocolate frosting, she sighed. ‘Everyone gets our best,’ she said, robotically. She looked up when she sensed this wasn’t enough. ‘Your mum’s going to be fine.’
Mum fell asleep while we watched a Bollywood film on my laptop. I’d spent the 30 minutes of excruciating cheese tweeting and replying to emails. She fell asleep on her back with her mouth closed, the oxygen being manually pumped into her, slowly meandering through the relevant nooks and crannies of her lungs. I decided to take a walk.
It was too cold so I spent an hour in the pub, nursing a pint and watching a football match I had no vested interest in. I couldn’t concentrate on the book I’d brought with me. Eventually staring into space wasn’t enough and my phone was running out of battery. I wanted to be done with my weekend visiting obligations so headed back to see if my mum had woken up.
She hadn’t. But the woman in the hospital bed next to her had. She was in her thirties, had a bruised face and bandaged hand. Her feet were pink and inflamed. She whispered to me.
‘Hey, is there any cake left?’
‘No, sorry, I gave the rest to the nurses.’
‘You’re very sweet bringing that in.’
‘It was nothing.’
‘My mouth is so dry. What I would give to have the taste of anything else on my tongue. I’d even take up smoking again.’
‘Probably not the best idea.’
‘Nope. It’s why I’m here.’
She closed her eyes and held out a hand. ‘I’m Lindsey,’ she said and I gently took her hand. ‘Your hands are really hot.’
‘I get hot hands and feet,’ I said.
‘Will you help me up for a walk?’
‘I can’t, sorry. I should stay with my mum.’
‘Oh, she’s fine. She’ll be asleep for another hour. She’s like clockwork.’
I stood up and Lindsey swung her inflamed feet off the bed. I placed her slippers near them for her and she sat up. Steadying her hand on my shoulder she stood up. I helped with a palm on her back. Slippers on, I supported her as she waddled towards the door.
‘The problem with cancer is you have to let all manner of strangers be intimate with your body. I’d never link arms with a strange man on a Saturday.’
‘It’s alright, you know my mum,’ I said.
Lindsey led me out of the room into the quiet corridor. It was the weekend. There was nothing going on here. The nurses were quietly filling out forms. Patients were asleep in the post-lunch lull. Visitors were enjoying their weekends elsewhere.
‘Have you been drinking?’ Lindsey asked.
‘One pint. There’s nothing to do around here.’
‘What’s wrong with tea?’
‘The instant machine here has put me off it for life, I think.’
‘It’ll do that.’
Across the corridor was the recreation room, with a television, some old DVDs, stacks of Reader’s Digest compendiums and well-thumbed Barbara Taylor Bradford paperbacks. The walk had taken it out of Lindsey so she leant against the doorframe and pointed at a coffee table. On it was a pair of glasses and a photography magazine. I picked them up for her and she linked her arm in mine and we walked back to her bed.
‘What happened to your face?’ I asked.
‘Nothing. What happened to yours?’ Lindsey smiled and stopped me. She forced a deep breath. ‘Car crash. I couldn’t breath. I crashed my car into a postbox.’
‘How fast were you going?’
‘Not that fast. I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. Lesson learnt.’
I helped Lindsey back on to her bed. She put her glasses on her side table and rested the photography magazine on her chest.
‘I feel heavy,’ she said. ‘Thanks for the workout.’
I shrugged. I heard my mum call my name. She was awake and panting. She asked me for water. I poured it out and lifted the cup of lukewarm plastic tap water to her lips and she sipped.
‘You don’t have cancer do you?’ Lindsey asked my mum. She shook her head. ‘Keep it that way. It’s really shit.’ Lindsey laughed to herself. I looked at my mum and saw her internally rolling her eyes. ‘You know,’ Lindsey said. ‘They say singing’s good for lung cancer. It gives your lungs a good workout. Will you both sing with me?’
Mum nodded at me. I helped her sit up straighter as she and Lindsey discussed songs they both knew the words to. They started with a lacklustre ‘If You’re Happy and You Know It’ but both burst into giggles on acknowledging that they were both far from happy.
Mum hummed to herself. The tune morphed into words. It was a song I knew well. She used to sing it in the kitchen. It was a Bollywood song from the 60s.
‘…aaj mausam badaa beiimaan hai…’
I looked at her and I knew. Today, the weather’s very fickle. It’s very fickle today, the weather… some storm is on its way.
We had till then to say the things we needed to say the most.