Image: Deborah Brasket (with permission)
I had known my fate since the last day of December when ice was set taut over the garden pond and the trees glittered with rime. The land lay undisclosed behind thick fog. Only the dark cracks of skeletal trees showed here and there. That night we were going to a party. Jude felt it would do me good.
When I knocked on the surgery door and entered, knowing the limited time for such consultations, I expected to find Dr. Wells absorbed in an overflow of note-taking from the previous patient and was prepared for an air of offhand interest. Instead his gaze was fixed on the open file on his desk.
“Come in, Mrs Brightman. Sit down. How are you today?” he enquired with devious solicitude. His eyes swerved towards me and away again. The patient’s chair was set, not opposite his, but at an angle to it, creating a line of vision with an expanded model of the inner ear. “I’m sorry, the central heating isn’t working. I hope it wasn’t too chilly in the waiting room.”
I sensed a fissure in his mask. “No,” I said. “I didn’t notice.” A fan heater was working in the consulting room.
“I have here the hospital’s report...”
My sinews tensed. After the miscarriage, I was subjected to a series of tests and probes which included an electrocardiogram. Several specialists had been drawn into conference and seemed reluctant to discharge me from hospital. Just routine, Mrs Brightman, they assured me with bluff congeniality, leaving me to conclude that all was being done in the interest of future pregnancies. Unsettling as it was, I didn’t suppose there was anything seriously wrong. If I was inclined to tire easily, I had learnt to adapt to limitations and enjoyed good health on the whole.
“Mrs Brightman,” he addressed me solemnly, “I’m afraid I have to tell you that you must not expect to have another child.”
A baby’s cry echoed along the corridor of the Health Centre and seemed to articulate some inner cry of my own. I had spoken to our unborn child, told him how much I loved him and how beautiful the world was, and not long after the ‘quickening’, he had responded with a gentle thrust. I know that it was so; I didn’t imagine it. In a moment of utter anguish, I realised that it was the only dialogue I would ever have with someone of my own flesh and blood. I would never be in touch with my mysterious forebears through the rising generation.
I could not bear to think of the barren years ahead, nor the cradle in the nursery remaining empty. Our son had been born about ten weeks before term, just large enough to have survived with intensive care had there been a spark of life in him. They had whisked him away, not wishing to add to my distress. It wasn’t fashionable to mourn. A cheery nurse had pointed out that as I was young and it was my first pregnancy, the usual advice was to conceive again with all possible haste. But that did not fill my aching arms for the unique individual I was expecting. I felt friendless and bruised to the core. In the end, I locked myself into a bathroom, which patients were strictly forbidden to do, and ran water to drown the sound of my weeping until, my absence noted, they came banging on the door, chiding me for my folly. “You might have fainted, Mrs Brightman! And then, what?”
The telephone on the desk gave a siren ring. Dr. Wells was urgently needed in another part of the building. He protested but finally excused himself, hastening from the room with an air of reprieve.
The heater whirred, wafting its sterile warmth towards me. Through a glass panel in the door, I could see a poster outlining the benefits to be claimed in pregnancy. I turned to the upside down report with its short chronicle of trial and failure, indelible script filling the spaces between blocks of print. A several-digit number was scribbled in pencil at the top. The shape of it alerted me. It was the number I dialled for Jude's office. With deft facility, I slid the file round, it was over in a second. Advanced Mitral Stenosis, I read. Those three words leapt out at me from the wiry jumble of notes, rebounding senselessly in my brain. I chased scraps of information gleaned from the radio, from a piece I had once read in the Nursing Times which some fateful premonition must have caused me to heed. I was counting the windowpanes now, assessing the width and depth of them. A ladybird, confused by the interior climate, was groping up the glass, slipping, striving again. It landed on the frame. Mitral Stenosis. A narrowing of valves, a closure of the ways. There was no recommendation for surgery.
I trembled at what I had done. I was in possession of knowledge I was never meant to have. I felt like a culprit on the wrong side of the law, sitting there as immobile as stone.
And then, as the hiatus opened, it seemed that life had been lived for this. All I had gone through had been a preparation for death.
When Dr. Wells returned, he glanced at me covertly, seeing the disturbed papers I’d made no attempt to replace. For it could not be righted, knowledge of death. It could not be put in its place.
“How long?” I asked tonelessly, focused on space. “How long is there left?”
“You have youth on your side…”
“A year. Maybe more. My dear, I…I’m terribly sorry.”
“Can…nothing be done, nothing at all? I thought…”
“In some instances, surgery is feasible. In your case, there are complications.”
His traitor’s eye met mine. “Thank you,” I said. “Thank you for telling me.”
One year. Two. I thought of all the living that had to be compacted into that year, the places I must see, the pictures I must paint. Already my being had catapulted itself into the future and I wanted desperately to be out there. Outside. Beginning it all. The image of Jude stabbed me with pain. I thought of the way be preferred his omelettes and who would iron his shirts. My throat was dry as tinder. It ached and ached like limbs submerged in iced water.
“My husband doesn’t…know?”
“Not yet. I would appreciate a talk with him.”
“No!” I managed to curb my alarm. I could feel my personhood slipping away. Everything decided over my head. My opinion, at best, indulged. “I’d rather handle it myself. At least let me do that.”
He considered this doubtfully, but then nodded. It was plain he did not want the duty anyway. “All right. If that’s what you wish.”
His pen began to glide over the prescription pad. “I’ll put you in contact with a palliative care nurse. If there’s any way at all we can help, please don’t hesitate to ask. Live as you think best.
You will probably experience periods of strain and fatigue and periods of remission. These should help when you’re going through a bad patch. And these,” he explained, adding a second line, “should be taken all the time. I’ll arrange for repeat prescriptions to be left at Reception for you.” He tore off the leaf and handed it over. “I’ll ask Sister to give you something now, and then to run you home if she’s free.”
“Thank you, but there’s no need. Really there isn’t. Please don’t trouble.”
He sat with the receiver poised in mid-air. Dead leaves captured by a breath of wind swirled over the forecourt. I noticed that his car was parked exactly between the white lines in his allotted space. He replaced the receiver.
As I made to leave, he got up and mechanically washed his hands at the sink.
(Original edition published 1980)