In the early days of our marriage, I used to buy little gifts for Rachel all the time. I wouldn’t necessarily make a big deal of it, sometimes I would just be out getting my lunch and a colourful coffee cup, one of those reusable ones, would catch my eye and I’d pick it up with hardly a second thought. Other times on my way back home, I’d stop to get a bunch of whatever blooms were in season from the stand just outside the train station. But as time went by, the small impulse buys petered out and presents seemed only to be given on the set days we all mark on the calendars: birthdays and anniversaries, Christmas and Valentine’s Day.
So, I suppose if buying this gift has been so hard, I have myself at least partly to blame; if I’d continued with the impulse buying, perhaps this purchase wouldn’t have been so difficult. Perhaps. The bag, containing the angular box, bumps its pointed corners into my leg as I slowly take the steps to our front door; it doesn’t want me to forget, as if I could. Lowering it on to the doorstep, I take a moment to steady my breathing as I pat my pockets for the keys. Rachel’s breathing exercises help: deeply in and out; I feel my chest rise and fall just like hers does, when I watch her after she has struggled into sleep.
I goad myself to be the husband I once was: breezy on the doorstep, pushing the door open with a Honey I’m home; the gift hidden behind my back, before I whip it out like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat. Those flourishes used to make her laugh, in the days before we both realised life can play tricks that don’t always make you smile. Slowly I stoop and pick up the bag and its contents. If it’s as light as a hundred feathers, then why does it feel so heavy? I push the door open, focusing my eyes on the armchair down the corridor and Rachel’s turning face, trying to free the image beating frantically in my mind: a small brown bird, once all air and flight, now inert and grey as a stone.
Michael will be home any second now. I have a new way of measuring time, sitting in this armchair, an ever-fixed mark, like the thin piece of metal on the sundial: the one that casts the shadow. If you looked at me you might think I am a wonder, casting no shadow at all, in this unlit front room. This is untrue, shadows swarm to me and I to them; it’s a fatal attraction.
My view is rooted in the garden, in particular the beautiful strong sweep of the silver birch, straining upwards into the sky. Today there isn’t a breath of wind, so it marks the time precisely. When the sun noses past the finish line, marked by the tree, Michael’s train will have pulled into the station. He will walk the five minutes home to me, waiting here. I have taken off my watch and put my phone away: the tree is my chosen timepiece now. If I strain my ear hard enough, to how the wind sings in its branches, perhaps it will drown out the tick ticking in my breast: a dark time which I don’t want to hear, especially not now, as it gathers pace and quickens.
When the click in the lock doesn’t come, I remember the task I have given him for after the office. Poor man. This morning when I asked, he looked at me completely lost. It’s another one of the many impossible tasks I expect him to perform for me on a regular basis now, like stroking my back for hours until exhaustion stalks fear into the corner and my mind quietens enough to slip into the respite a few hours of oblivion can bring.
“Please Michael, I can’t do this. You buy one. It really doesn’t matter to me.”
“But the colour?”
“And how long?”
“I don’t care.”
He’d shaken his head, probably wishing I had whims like I used to have, like waking up with an impulse to go to the coast for a day, hopping on the train and sleeping on the beach under the summer stars. I have no urges anymore: fear has swallowed my longings in one greedy gulp.
Finally, I hear the door open, welcoming in the worry he brings with him, carrying it in his arms to embrace my own. Like every day for the past three weeks, he comes and kisses me on the top of my head: a chaste kiss- like one you might give your mother. It makes me long to get up and embrace him passionately, as we used to, but he lowers a bag onto my lap, pinning me to the seat under its gentle but insistent pressure. This is the gift of love my husband brings to me. It is not wrapped in beautiful soft tissue paper; no scent of perfume lifts into the room as I raise the box from its bag. His kind face looks glumly at me. What a gift- giving this is, he as reluctant to give as I am to receive; a present bought with no joy and accepted with no pleasure.
I flip the lid open, eager at least to get the misery over and done with. The wig lies at the bottom of the box, a ridiculous thing which I almost expect to reveal a sneering mouth, laughing at its own mimicry, when I prod a finger into its mass. I swallow down my revulsion, telling myself it is just synthetic fibres made to resemble hair. Tentatively I hold it in one hand, surprised at its glossy weight. With the other hand, I touch the tips of my own hair lightly; my fingers know the difference without my eyes having to confirm it, yet the colour is very similar.
I’d known Michael would never shock me, returning with a blonde bombshell or ebony locks, but this comes as more of a surprise. I study my husband’s familiar back, stooped over the small coffee table, reading the letter, and wonder at his attentive eyes, capturing my hair’s shade from all the other browns. Mouse and hazel, chocolate and chestnut; light to milk and from medium to dark. He would have taken his time, carefully sifting and sorting, until he came to one which resembled me, his sparrow.
“It’s come then.” He turns with the letter from the hospital is in his hand.
I return my imitation hair to the box and gently fold the lid down; a mouth pursed closed, enduring.
“Yes, details of the operation. The dates are on the back.”
He turns the sheet over and reads the line of dates. I have memorized them already: in two days the operation; two weeks after, the first cycle of chemotherapy begins. He is studying the paper as if it will hold all the answers. I wanted them too at first, sitting in the clinic’s chair and asking, why the pains and the bone-aching fatigue? The answer given had seemed all wrong for a fit young woman. Three weeks on, the answer is still just as appalling- brazen-faced and irrefutable- as it was then.
I sit beside the empty space Rachel has left on the ward. I stare at the bed- sized cavity with its black streaks in the lino: traces of where the bed’s casters spin every day. In the last half hour, I have watched nurses unlock beds for wiry porters; with strength which belies their size, they wheel them off, bearing their passengers along for the ride, huddling down under the thin sheets. In their faces, I can see how anxious they are; finally, they are off to the part of the hospital which is waiting just for them. Yet they are still more anxious to return; to navigate through this city of disease, tracing the route back to a place called good health. I lift my eyes from the skid and pressure marks on the floor and stare off down the corridor.
There is a surprising lull in the hospital traffic. I know Rachel won’t be the next patient wheeled down the empty corridor; I have been told not to expect her for at least another two hours. The surgeon explained this morning, how it depends how many lymph nodes they need to remove; whether the first few show any signs of disease. I unfold the paper rolled in my hand, opening it up on my lap. I look down once more at the woman’s body rendered in a simple line form. The abstracted patient lies still; the uniform dashes mark where the breast will be cut away. I remove my hands and the paper curls up at either end and the drawing shifts, like the illustration is pulling her knees to her, rocking- no longer in pain, but terror.
Rachel had curled like that, crumpling on the bed as she told me what the doctor had said. I had lain down next to her, holding her shaking back as she clenched her knees tight. I had said again and again: it’ll be alright; it’ll be alright; it’ll be alright. I chanted those words, making myself believe them, glad she was facing away from me so she couldn’t see my face, twisted in doubt.
I look again at the illustration with its precisely spaced lines to render loss. As a child I used to enjoy crafting with my mum and dad, cutting along the paper’s dashes and folding to make something new: a boat to sail, a plane to fly, a paper bird to give your Gran and make her smile. I wielded the scissors, never that accurately, and a wonky plane would somehow wobble through the air or a boat would bob on the pond, before falling on its side. That was the point: cut to create. But what will the surgeon’s scalpel make of Rachel; what will they craft in that bright sterile room? It’ll be alright; it’ll be alright; it’ll be alright. I whisper to myself, in the silence of the ward.
I know Rachel is scared that I will be shocked at her body, sheared of its right breast. I am far more frightened about what is eating away at her, body and soul. It has already fed on her smile, gorged on her laugh and every time I see her hunched in the armchair, a trapped bird, I feel like this disease is a ravening monster, feasting on my beautiful wife. In the darkest moments, when she lies asleep and I wipe my eyes on the duvet, willing my body still so no movement can wake her and bring her back to this awful present, it is not just a tumour growing in my wife but fear, bloated and preying on me too.
This is what I want cut from my wife. The knife should dig deep and excavate till not a cell of fear is left to grow and grow and grow, out of control.
Carefully I press my hands together. I flex the fingertips until the palms move apart. Flex and release, flex and release; I feel the strength course through them and I will all of it to the surgeon, now operating, in whose hands Rachel and I must trust.
When I come to, out of the fog of the anaesthetic, Michael’s is the first face I see. His smile is as precious to me as I imagine a mother’s is to the new born she cradles; I latch on to his hand and his mouth breaks into a grin of pure joy.
“Welcome back, traveller.” He says, squeezing my hand. “I’m so proud of you Rachel. Have I ever told you that?”
“Often.” I slur, still feeling like I’ve drunk a bottle of wine rather than just a glass.
“Now the healing can start,” he says, in a voice so firm, I don’t know how disease could argue with it.
I smile and shut my eyes, drifting off to sleep once more.
Waking a second time, perhaps minutes, maybe hours later, Michael is still there. Next to him stands my surgeon, in his hospital whites. He looks more tired than me, but as soon as I try to pull myself up slightly, on wobbly elbows, he hurries to my side.
“Stay resting a little longer Rachel. I need to get some lunch, it’s been a long morning, but I just wanted to stop by and say we got it all and the results are back from the lab: none of the lymph nodes are affected. Not a single one. ”
I turn to Michael, who whoops like he’s scored a hat trick. For me, this quiet announcement needs no trumpets or fanfares; delivered in an unassuming way, I know what it is: a blessing.
Standing at the bathroom mirror, I watch my reflection with wonder. I look tired, with dark rings shaded beneath my eyes, but the person staring out is me, Rachel; I recognise the glimmer of quiet triumph in her eyes. I have seen it before, in the slog of final exams, making it to the last one, or when editing my thesis; achievements I’ve worked towards, summoning time and strength when both seemed to be all but gone. I smile back at myself. I am so pleased to see her- this young woman whom I thought was lost- that I could kiss the glass. At the thought, I break into a smile and my reflection grins back: go girl.
On the shelf just under the mirror, along with various tubes and bottles, is a sculpture I had made when just out of Uni. Seven years studying for my doctorate and I knew I needed a change; the pottery course at the local college was perfect: time to get my hands dirty, let my fingers play and my mind too. I let ideas for the future slip, take shape and transform, just as the forms of my fancy emerged before me.
At the time, this bust hadn’t seemed to turn out quite as I had intended it to. I had been aiming for a cubist style, the profile of the face turned in, staring at -but ignored by- the face’s other half, which looked instead right out at the viewer, at me. I suppose my semi-discontent was the reason why I had consigned the sculpture to the bathroom, where it got lost in the shower’s steam or hidden by the jumble of pots, bottles and tubes.
I realise now I have been over analysing it, poor lump of clay; it makes a perfect stand for my wig, which as of yet- I can hardly believe it- I haven’t needed to wear. Perhaps it’s only because I’ve completed the first cycle, but the chemo hasn’t affected my hair. I tug it gently, half expecting a handful to come loose, but my fingers come away empty. Never have I been happier to see nothing, nothing at all.
“Rachel, come here a moment!”
Smiling at my sculpted wig stand one last time, I switch off the light and make my way to the garden.
I knew exactly what gift I wanted to buy for Rachel; it was the easiest purchase I’ve ever made. The man in the shop tried to tell me about necessary details: upkeep and care. I smiled politely, paid and left, bringing it straight back here, calling Rachel to join me.
I watch her now, stepping through the grass, head cocked to one side- curious, her expression asking, so what have you been up to, husband of mine?
I’ve been thinking back to those nights, reading William Blake together on our student sofa; how he’d said, A robin red breast in a cage puts all heaven in a rage. We’ve had enough cages and rages and everything else in between; it is time to start anew.
I hold the metal cage up and we both look at the little brown bird, so nondescript on its perch and so beautiful. It lets out a single trill with a power which makes us look at each other with amazement. Rachel opens the cage’s door and together we watch the bird take to the sky, flying clean through the opening, like it never had a doubt. An arrow shot true, speeding past the line of our silver birch, beating a new time with its wings: a strong one that seems like it will never wind down; a clock that will keep on ticking, marking the seconds, minutes and hours of healing hope.
Spreading its wings, the brave little bird is a small miracle in the vast expanse of the sky. I turn to face Michael, drawing him close, hugging him tight. From over his shoulder, I see the small brown bird fly on, bearing my fear far away.
I kiss my beloved husband, long and deep and passionately.
When I look again, the bird and its burden are gone.