Written by Liz Adams on Wednesday the 17th of March 2010
I'm peeling through the newspapers, reading about the plights of the modern age. I'm one of them. A woman knits beside me. She bites her lipstick lips. Ange would say she uses 'Purple Red,' or 'Autumnal Plum,' but to me she is just wearing lipstick and the fact she knits illustrates that she channels her anxieties into other things. What do I do with mine? Last night I trawled through the internet and attempted self-diagnosis. One graph showed zigzags that resembled electronic heartbeats.
There's a woman wearing a headscarf in front of me. Knots of pink blossom embellish it. Beneath, just skin. She's talking loudly about steroids and chemo to the couple opposite her, who nod nervously and clutch each other's hands. The child beside her looks fat and healthy. I look down at my watch, drag my shirt sleeve away from the dial's face. The silver hand chugs along, it rests on nine.
On the news last night they showed a man beneath a heap of concrete, after the Chinese earthquake. He was talking into a phone, saying his last goodbyes to his wife. I looked over at Ange, her blonde hair scraped away from her pretty face, she said: 'He'll get up after this shot, walk away. They do it for the shock value these news teams.' And she continued eating her salmon, sea salt dissolving into the orange pink of its skin. I felt the salt melting on my tongue and blinked back whatever was gathering in my eyes. The grit of an earthquake thousands of miles away.
Ange used to decorate her face with manufactured grit. She dabbed glitter at the edges of each of her eyes, smudged her cheeks with finely ground blusher, the same consistency as sand. The first time I met her, she was wearing a black dress, beribboned with red pipes that cut down the skirt. We drank wine from thin glasses at the neon bar all night, watching the water features glimmer and dance behind. After, we went back to her flat: carpets the colour of milk chocolate, overstuffed cushions decorated the floor. As we lay back onto them I pulled up her skirt, fumbling until I felt the strip of hair.
The woman opposite me is telling an elderly couple about her treatment. I try not to listen. I blot out the words as much as I can. My heart's banging like a maniac inside my ribs. A nurse hands out results as though it's exam day. Brown envelopes. The names, hand-written in Biro. The coffee machine in the corridor makes a gurgling noise, like a hungry body. She says a surname, 'Tanzin.' No one claims the envelope. She shifts her posture, places a hand on her hip, 'Sadler.' The child with the cheeks of rose shifts in his seat, his mother places her hand on his knee to steady him. I look out of the window. A perfect white jet streams across the paper blue sky. The trail it leaves behind like a twisted paperclip against an envelope. She says another name as I reach for a magazine.
Gloss or grease beneath my fingertips, I'm not sure. The Queen at a wedding. Amy Winehouse's ballet slippers. All of it claws and glows in front of me. I look up at the elderly couple holding hands, the gold bands around their marriage fingers. I wonder if Ange and I will ever get married. I wonder if our faces shall shift into one face, like theirs.
Ange spends her days at court in a stupendous white wig. Her gold hair smells of dust when she gets home. Often, I ask her to steal the wig. I say, 'Steal it, go on Ange.' She smiles and I see the teeth that the dentist recently whitened, her pink tongue sanded down. I touch her hard stomach that she bends and twists in the gym each week, rowing boats to nowhere. Or other times I imagine a rubber pavement recurring over and over again, beneath her feet.
The voice calls another person in. The elderly couple stand up, shuffling out in front of me. They're the type of people I'd never have noticed until they sat here, in this waiting room. My boss, Martin, would say they stink of piss. I'll meet him after this, in that sushi bar he always goes to. He'll fill me in on our new sponsors and his trip to Singapore. I'll nod thoughtfully and stroke his ego like a longhaired Persian cat. I want to be promoted this year. It's time to move up in the world and then out into the suburbs. I want Ange and I to have the perfect life. We've mapped it all out. No hiccups.
I look at the fish tank in the corner of the waiting room. Part of me wonders who has paid for this tank. Who has paid for this tank with the ornamental dolphins arching in the gravel at the bottom? One fish presses its lips to the side, sucking the glass. I study its belly, the tan-coloured marks that look like skin cancer. I stand up, stretch. My shirt feels damp beneath my armpits, (this was one of the 'B Symptoms,' sweats). I flex my hands as my mind tells my body to stop sweating, to get a grip. The woman with the steroid voice is finally called in. Her rosy boy toddles after her, the rubber soles of his shoes sound enormous against the tile floor.
Last night, just as we were about to turn the light off, Ange said, 'I don't think I love you any more.' We just lay there, flat in the dark, and I played with the lump between my index finger and thumb. The covers moved over with a hush. 'What did you just say?' I asked after a moment. All I could think of was the dark sucking into my mouth and the lump swelling like a vast poisonous plum. I imagined each of my bodily organs infested with the plum's juice, my body becoming a tree and then my name carved on a bench, opposite a plum tree in some park in London, balloons of longing tied around it, children climbing over me. 'I don't love you,' she said. I wasn't surprised, she has said this kind of thing for a while: 'You're not the right person for me. I don't know you.' But each time she says it she cries lightly into her pillow. I study the webs of mascara that she leaves the next day. I said, 'Night Ange,' then turned off the bedside light, my eyes slowly becoming dark.
Finally, my name is called. I hear it echo around the waiting room, bouncing off the cornices. I stand up, walk. When I reach room fifteen I pause outside the door. I am a child again, awaiting the brunt of the headmaster. I wipe his face away as I rake my fingers through my hair and walk into the cool white room.
Professor Baldwin looks studious in his crisp blue shirt which he's tucked into his pencil-grey trousers. 'We'll need to take a few details first,' he says, coughing once into his fist before sitting down and taking a Biro from his drawer, the computer on behind him. I see my name and dates lit up in white writing against a black screen, like chalk on a blackboard. I chew my lower lip and feel a dot of blood release. 'Profession?' he doesn't look up as he asks this question, the glasses that sit at the end of his distinguished nose glint in the light, a slice of sky in them. 'I work for a law firm.' He writes this down. 'May I confirm your address?' he asks politely. 'Yes,' I say. 'Yes.'
A cactus sits on his desk with one white flower. The flower looks half open but shall come into bloom soon. The clock on his wall with the giant Roman numerals tells me it's nine forty. He places the pen down, 'So what seems to be the problem?' It feels like we're talking in mathematics, that the problem is assumed before discovered.
'I have a lump on the side of my face, the size of a chick-pea.' I point to it.
'When did you first notice it?'
'Three months ago.'
He writes this down, 'And it didn't concern you then?'
'I didn't think there was anything to worry about,' I say.
'Right. I'm going to examine you now. Please come over here.'
I lie down on the plastic bed. The curtains around the cubicle brush against each other, chattering. My shirt sticks to the plastic surface. His fingers are firm and determined, each push of pressure indicates a man that can read by touch. I am Braille. He moves away from me. I apologise awkwardly for my sweating. He smiles then goes to the sink in the corner and washes his hands. As I stand up I look out of the window in front of me; huge buildings, thundering traffic, and the wings of birds above all this.
I walk out of the hospital into the light. The building feels huge and grey behind me. I take a bus to Embankment and walk over the Jubilee bridge. I e-mail Martin from my BlackBerry to say I won't make lunch. I am unlike myself as I watch the liquid waver below. Metal boats chug through the steel bashed waters. Tourists lean keenly towards the skyline they've only seen on screens or postcards. My shoes lead me past the Big Issue seller who I ignore each time, across the paving slabs on South Bank towards the gallery I've never been to. In my head I am going to visit the Tate, but then I feel intimidated by the vastness of its brick and the sky that has flooded with a grey colour above it. I go into the smaller gallery next door, the sign above it reads: Bankside Gallery. I pause before I go in, and really I feel five years old, lost without my mother. I imagine her on her knees in the garden, turning over soil. Geraniums in their terracotta pots drinking themselves pink. I see her fuzzy brown hair and arrowy face turned towards the earth. And then I see the earth, the fleshy worms writhing in it.
Inside, the gallery looks cool and light, the floor made of a lacquered pine. The woman behind the desk looks casually busy. Her bright white hair, frosty with the room. She looks up at me and nods to acknowledge my presence. I smile before turning towards the wall, my eye focusing on one picture after another. Suddenly it settles on something that consumes me and before I know it the day and everything in it dissolves. The painting is a myriad of autumn leaves, layered upon one another: russet, orange, green, yellow. I move towards the tiny plaque that is pinned beside the frame. It says the painting is by Fay Ballard. My eye falls on the second half of her sentence: '...more transient than we?' I back away.
The flat smells of anchovies wilting away from their skeletons. I am walking back into my life.
'How was it?' Ange asks immediately.
'Okay. Some more tests.'
'Look Ange, about what you said last night...'
'What?' She looks up, her gold hair falls in front of her eyes. Her shirt looks tough and starched.
'About what you said,' I mutter again.
'What did I say?'
I can't say it. I walk towards the cupboard and get out a glass tumbler. I take the lime from the fruit bowl and thud it in half with the knife. I wipe the citric flesh around the rim of the glass like I've seen them do in bars. I go to the freezer and clatter the ice cubes in. I pour four thimbles of gin over the cubes and watch the ice crack. I top it up with tonic and breathe in as the bubbles spit. Ange stirs the pasta with her back to me, a wooden spoon clenched in her fist.
'Say it,' she demands.
'You said you didn't love me.'
She looks me in the eye as she pulls the pasta off the hob. The frilly parcels split with heat, reveal their mascarpone insides. She gestures to me with a flick of the hand, 'Give me two minutes.' I stand by the hobs. Heat drifts into my side.
Slits of light slide between the blinds in the bedroom. Ange has hidden herself behind the wardrobe door. My eyes adjust to the half-light as I move towards her. 'Close your eyes,' she says. I shut my eyes and listen to myself breathe. I see the prints of the leaves in the gallery stamped on the back of my eyelids. She moves closer. I cup the curve of her breasts in the flat of my hands, stroking the nipples slowly with each thumb. When my hand moves to touch her face I feel a brush of horsehair, and then I see it. The court wig curling about her ears.
First published in Iota Fiction, Issue 1.