By Sarah Jane Peacock
I can’t remember the last time we met. Of course neither of us knew it was the last time. I can’t even pinpoint the year. My years have leaked by in a swamp of guilt and disappointment.
As I reminisce over that hospital visit my heart patters. I can’t recall, but I wonder if I anticipated your coming with excitement? You had, after all, told me you’d ask permission of the nurse to take me on an outing.
My torso was tightly bandaged, a plastic drain tube snaking from beneath my right arm to a glass bottle hanging from a strap over my right shoulder. It wasn’t a romantic setting by any standards.
When I dressed myself in real clothes that day, sweat streamed down my back. I remember both of my hands shook as I fumbled with buttons and zips.
After overcoming the trauma of the diagnosis and the grinding, debilitating routine of fortnightly chemo, I remember when I told you how pleased the surgeon was with the lumpectomy. In those dark days of hell, I know now that I constantly underestimated your grief and terror as you stood on the sidelines of my life.
I didn’t have to look in the mirror if I chose not to, but you had to look me in the face. Your blue eyes radiated endless compassion, your few words engulfed me with tenderness on an astronomical scale.
My waxen pallor and hairless head frightened my mother, gave my father nightmares, shocked my brother into keeping a distance and would have driven away any lover. It terrified me if I caught sight of myself accidentally. You asked me gently if I would allow you to see my bare pink skull. Only my mother had those depths of courage.
Except at night in bed, and sometimes even then, I camouflaged the baldness with that blonde wig. It was really two sizes too big but during the chemo you took pictures of me in it, smiling at the beach. As if I was a normal person. The style matched my chemo-chased hair pretty well, but the synthetic strands conjured for me more of a science-fiction normality. And of course, the eventual failure of the lumpectomy and the catastrophe of replacing the whole breast only incremented the ‘bionic me’ scenario.
I can’t fathom how you failed to meet my husband. A chance encounter in the hospital corridor might have passed unnoticed. Although, you didn’t know one another – so what does it matter now?
You said you had promised the nurse that you would take care of me, and the surgeon agreed I could go out. I wonder if you told him who you were? My brother, neighbour, friend?
I imagined your azure eyes twinkling at the other end of the phone when you spoke to the nurse. You were so careful and secretive, you hardly ever rang me. Each little conversation with you was a treasure. I’m glad we didn’t have text in those days.
The staff nurse said to me, ‘Don’t go too far, don’t stay out more than an hour, and don’t get cold’. Winter in the north of Scotland is not the ideal time for an immunocompromised post-surgery patient to have an afternoon out at the beach. So I guess I was lucky to be awarded even that degree of freedom. They must have trusted you. I did.
Apprehension fizzed through me when you arrived. After the bubble of protection and the tropical heat of the ward, the weak winter sun at the hospital’s exit shone pale and cool. Freezing cold air blasted us as we whirled through the rotating glass door.
And then you inched an arm around my good shoulder, and checked for approval. Do you recall that I edged my body closer to yours? Your car was parked right at the front door of the hospital.
You told me you had bought that car for me, do you remember? When everything had been furtive and happy and we enjoyed the adventure, and we ran on adjacent treadmills at the gym, touched toes under the bubbles of the gym’s Jacuzzi and held hands in the park when daylight came at three in the morning.
I laughed and tossed my head back at the idea of our relationship continuing through the life of the car. Your candour made my heart wrench.
Oh, my precious, you arranged that outing with engineering precision – you kept me comfortable and safe. Face to face that afternoon we had to confront the reality of my diagnosis and an uncertain future. Not that we considered we had any future together. I read alarm in your eyes and fretted as that vein pulsed in your temple.
Your hand quivered sometimes and your voice trembled. I worried that the treatment programme would dissolve the snatched little world we had inhabited so briefly.
‘Beach?’ you asked with a grin, knowing the reply.
In your warm, leather-scented car our conversation was tentative, we talked like scared children. You thought I might die, didn’t you? I didn’t think I would die. I wanted to be alive for your love. I found out that day that it was love. Burning, possessive, anguished love. And you told me it was mutual.
Grey waves lurched onto the shingle beach and made it crackle. Flocks of seagulls plucked fish from the heaving sea. We agreed we’d not get out of the car. Not because it would break the hospital’s rules. Inside the cocoon of the car you produced two crystal glasses and stood them on a tray. Then from a small chilled bottle of chardonnay you poured a few drops into each glass. A tiny dish with black olives came out of the picnic bag.
‘Cheers, my darling,’ you whispered. ‘To you. Good health.’
You sipped from your glass then grazed my cheek with a butterfly-soft kiss, as if you were taking a liberty.
I can still smell the grey leather. If I were near death and my eyes were closed I would identify the smell of that leather. And your aftershave, not that I ever knew the brand, has aroused pain and a sense of great loss whenever I have inadvertently detected it over the years. Sometimes I experience the loss before I realise a stranger’s aftershave is the trigger.
I cannot recall any other words from that day. I felt more cherished and protected than on any day of my adult life. You checked that I was secure from further harm. You cared.
When I was released we met for coffee. You offered me ongoing protection. You said you would give me your soul. But when your husband is near death in the cardiology unit, you don’t accept an offer like that. It would be selfish.
Sixteen years on I stood by that grey sea. My gratitude to you, never expressed until now, has fuelled my life. Your devotion to me exceeded any I had known before or have known since. I desperately wanted to say yes to you.
My husband? He pulled through, but his mind was battered by bouts of surgery and heavy-duty medication. Our relationship flatlined.
Today, I would present you with my soul in a heartbeat.
A lump has blocked my throat as I write this and the page is wet with drips. We can only comprehend the cosmic impact of some things after they have occurred, can’t we? A rollercoaster rages and screams in my head. I thought I could put this into words without having to experience the emotion once more. You will have known as you opened the letter that it is written with the green Schaeffer fountain pen you gave me.
Timing is a capricious thing. Some green ink remains in the pen’s reservoir and a matching envelope lies on the desk. I can’t find you now and I don’t know where to look.
I have no address to write.
My Eternal Love