by Sam Szanto
‘Up to six months, that’s what they said. Up to six months.’
I don’t ask how she feels about that. That’s not what I’m here for, and besides it’s likely the service user, Lisa, doesn’t know what she feels yet. She’ll be numb, now; she’ll want to get practical things done. The painful truth will come later, a red angry sunrise that will gradually get smaller and smaller, shrinking to the size of a dot, to an epitaph.
‘I’ll make a cup of tea,’ Lisa says, and I don’t demur, or say that I can do it, because although she has late-stage ovarian cancer she can still do much of what she used to, and she clearly needs to be alone for a brief time.
When she has gone, my eyes flick around the living room, taking in the vase of pale-yellow roses, just starting to dry up, above the fireplace; a playpen containing toys; books on the dining table; a sparkly headband on a windowsill. Lisa is a single mother of three children, the eldest two at school and the youngest at nursery. There are framed photos of them: gap-toothed in navy uniforms; sandy-faced, dark hair wind-whipped into peaks, on beaches; clutching candyfloss at funfairs; brandishing LED unicorns and dinosaurs outside Big Tops. Their mother is in some of the photos. On one of the cupboards, children’s artwork has been Blu-tacked: houses, faces, animals, handprints, all banal and exquisite and primitive.
Lisa returns with two mugs of tea and a plate of biscuits. I thank her; pick up the mug of deep brown tea. I take a biscuit and dip it in the tea to sweeten it.
‘I don’t want to talk about the future,’ Lisa says firmly, placing her undrunk tea on the table between us.
I nod, because this is often said at a first meeting. We discuss instead what she needs to help her at home; initial arrangements for the children – it’s too soon to mention guardianship. Lisa makes notes on a pad. I give her the number of an occupational therapist, and detail the benefits she’s entitled to. I offer to call the Department for Work and Pensions on her behalf.
By the end of the session, although many of the practical things have been dealt with, unspoken-of emotions march like ants through invisible wall-cracks and across the white carpet.
‘Thank you, Michael.’ Lisa closes her pad; looks up at me with eyes spidered with red veins. ‘That was very helpful.’
I sit in the car outside Lisa’s house, those ants marching down my arms and colonising my fingers. First meetings with service users always get to me. I phone my boss, Tallulah. She’s about to go to a meeting, but takes five minutes to make me feel better, telling me I acted in the right way.
Five weeks have passed since Lisa’s prognosis. Today, as soon as I close the door she breaks down: hands over her face, shoulders convulsing.
‘Sit down, Lisa,’ I say.
She sits in the only armchair and I sit on the leather sofa opposite her. Hammers of sunlight are being hurled through the closed window. Neither of us mentions tea.
‘Sorry, it’s in a mess in here,’ she says, at last. She’s stopped crying, but her eyes glitter like shards of glass.
I say nothing.
‘I can’t bring myself to get the children to tidy up their toys anymore, and I’m so tired. I’d get a cleaner, but I don’t want someone else in the house for hours, and I’m worried about paying for it.’
The room looks clean enough, although it is messier than the last time I was in it, toys and a broken-up jigsaw scattered on the floor. The pale-yellow roses are totally dried up in their vase.
‘I’m frightened,’ Lisa says, staring at her floral skirt.
‘Of course you are.’
Of course she is. Life has become an un – unplanned, unimagined, uncontrollable. The present is a palimpsest pressing on and obscuring the future.
Lisa talks for an hour; I interject only occasionally. No notepad this time. Today is about feelings, less about facts. She is scared for herself; more scared for her children. She feels God is punishing her. Death is a chain around her neck, so heavy her shoulders dip and sway as she moves.
I suggest we explore how she can talk to her children about what will happen, and who could support her to do this. I ask about the children’s father; he now lives in Spain, where he is originally from, with another woman; Lisa hasn’t told him she is dying yet. She’s worried he won’t want the children. She’s terrified of the children one day forgetting her. I propose making memory boxes; she agrees this is a good idea.
‘Thank you,’ she says again, at the end. She touches my arm.
I tell her I’ll be back as soon as I can; I’ll have to ask Tallulah when that will be as she’s doing the schedules today, and step out of the house into tawny sunshine. It’s not full-on-fierce heat, but its claws are flexed. There is a chocolate bar wrapper on the path and I put it in my pocket in lieu of a bin. Then get back in my car, put on the air conditioning and take deep breaths. The ants have stopped crawling, at least.
After Lisa’s house I go to the inpatient ward. I am visiting Albert, a man whose English is very limited. I usually see him with an interpreter, but she’s unavailable today. I wonder if they’ve slashed the budget.
Albert smiles at me; I smile at him. Speaking slowly, I ask how he is today. He doesn’t respond, and I’m not sure whether that’s because he couldn’t understand me or if he isn’t well enough to speak. I look around for nurses and doctors, someone to ask, but when one does come into sight they dart around like video game characters.
I sit with Albert a while, smiling on, wondering how long he will be in hospital for and what will happen if he gets discharged as there are no day centres any more. He appears to fall asleep. As I am getting up, a man wearing a shirt and tie with grey slacks and shiny patent leather shoes comes in. He smiles, and points at Albert.
‘Asleep,’ I say.
‘Friend,’ he says, the word long and snug in his mouth, and takes my chair.
Forty-five minutes’ later, after a grey-tasting sandwich in a supermarket car park, I am in another house, on the other side of town, for my last visit of the day. Mark, the service user, and his wife Yvette are in their sixties, and I’ve known them since the spring, when Mark was being treated for head and neck cancer. He has just been told there are no more treatment options available. Today, their two thirty-something children are in the house, and Mark flings out the introductions as I’m ushered into the conservatory. More tea is made, and Yvette, a hint of grief on her face like the thin layer of dust on a painting, brings in biscuits on a Royal Doulton plate.
Mark looks steadily at me, folded lines around his eyes.
‘I’ve not got long, Michael,’ he says, a triple-chocolate biscuit suspended in the air. ‘I need support to arrange my funeral.’
I facilitate a conversation about Mark’s wishes. There are tears and laughter. The discussion puts the family together inside a verdant and manicured park of sadness, where they’re huddled on a bench watching the playground where the children used to run and play, when death was something that happened to very old people and strangers.
Mark says he wants Tears for Fears’ ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ as people leave the church. Neither of his children know it, so Yvette finds the song on her iPhone and we listen to it.
In my car again, peace in my ribs, I hum ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’, a song my own dad liked. He had a good death, and a good funeral. Better yet, he had a good life. Mark’s life has been good, too, I’m pretty sure. Is good, because even though he has not got long, he is still alive, and with the people who love him. He is who I want to show people when they say, ‘Wow, it must be depressing working with people who are dying.’ Usually I say, ‘No, I’m supporting them to live their lives as they want to, and I love my work.’ They give me the look of suspicion and sympathy, and the subject is closed down. People don’t want to talk about death until it’s at the door. If there is a depressing thing about my job, and my life, it’s the things that go unsaid. At least Mark and his family won’t have that, they can obviously talk to each other: maybe I can learn from them.
At my desk, I face a host of emails. There are so many people I work with, from organisations to individuals: carers, nurses, physiotherapists, dieticians, doctors, complementary therapists, counsellors, mentees. When I’ve answered as many enquiries as I can, I make a phone call to check on a family who I couldn’t see in person this week. Then, ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ still pulsing inside my head, I prepare a training presentation. It’s for teachers from a group of secondary academies, who have realised they need to get better at dealing with children’s grief; a specialist children’s bereavement social worker and a consultant oncologist are coming along. I consider whether calling my presentation Talking about Death and Dying is too stark or just appropriate, and settle for the latter.
When I am on the final PowerPoint slide, my phone rings. It is someone from the housing office returning my call, which is rare. I explain that Farah, one of the service users I saw yesterday at the drop-in centre, is living in completely unsuitable accommodation. At the end of the twenty-minute phone call, I ascertain that although the housing officer is sympathetic, she cannot do anything about the situation. It will have to be scaled-up, but it’s too late for that today.
‘Coming for a drink or two over the road?’ Tallulah asks, as I’m packing up. ‘The others are up for it.’
‘Not today,’ I say, ‘there’s something I’ve got to do.’
‘Oh yes?’ She leans against the beige wall, the dimple in her chin showing as she grins. ‘Not like you to miss Friday drinks.’
I shrug. If I tell Tallulah what I’m going to do, she’ll have told the whole team before the night’s over.
‘Someone convinced you on a date at last, Michael? Or have you discovered the joys of swiping right? We’re all doing it, my friend.’
‘It’s not a date,’ I say, standing up. ‘Just something I’ve got to say which I should have said a long time ago.’
The day is fading. The moon’s eye is the colour of the cream on the milk bottles my dad made me drink as a kid. The moon watches me get out of the car yet again.
Smoke is combing the air, along with the smell of cooked meat; there is the sound of laughter and kids shouting. I wonder if I know the barbeque hosts; new people have moved into the road, apparently, buying Barry Jones’ house after he died. I’m still on the street WhatsApp group, and the boys tell me some things, although not the things I really want to know. The boys love barbeques, and when I lived here were always asking if we could have one: I always said we would and never did; there was never the time.
Carrier bag in hand, I go through the waist-high gate and knock at Number 14’s door. It was painted white fifteen years ago, when we moved in, and then navy-blue five years after that. It could do with another coat of paint now. No answer. I knock again, slightly harder. Still no answer.
Going back without talking to Jess didn’t figure in my plan. Perhaps I’ll just stand here until she comes back. Or is that too stalker-y? While I’m waiting, I look into the neighbours’ front garden. Tom and Justin always keep it nice. Running alongside their path are lanterns, to push the darkness aside when it comes. Soft, gauzy butterflies float around their hedge. I catch a whiff of jasmine on the breeze, too.
In Jess’ garden, the roses from the only bush that has survived need deadheading and all other flowers have stopped growing. She has never been interested in gardening. That was another thing I always said I’d do and rarely did.
I can’t stand here all night. I’m about to walk away when the door opens. Jess is wearing a tent-like dress, green edged with silver; it has swallowed her everywhere except the wrists and ankles; there are sunglasses on top of her head, and her hair is curling as it does from the heat. She has make-up on, too. Maybe she was preparing to go to the barbeque. Or on what Tallulah would call a ‘hot date’. Would the boys have told me if their mother was dating?
‘What is it, Mike?’ Jess asks in a cobblestone voice.
I smile; she does not.
‘You’re not meant to just turn up,’ she says. ‘It’s not in the plan. What if the boys saw you?’
‘I’m their dad,’ I say. Of course I’m their dad. The fact on its own changes nothing; feelings create change.
‘You’re their dad on Wednesdays and every other Saturday.’ Jess puts up her left hand to rub her face, as she does when she is tired or stressed. Her fingers are bare. I glance down at the gold band on my finger, trying to remember when I last saw her wearing her wedding ring.
‘I’m their dad,’ I repeat, trying not to stare at her hand. Why had I not planned what to say? Those invisible ants are biting.
‘Anyway, Mike, the boys aren’t here, so….’
‘It’s you I want to talk to,’ and suddenly words are flowing like the tumbling sand in a timer, ‘I know the boys are at Cubs I know their schedule I’m here for you Jess to talk to you I’m sorry for not ringing first or texting I’m sorry but if you’d known I was coming you’d have told me not to or gone out can we just talk I brought wine and chocolate.’
‘Maybe I’m busy, Mike.’ Jess gives each syllable its fair due.
‘Are you busy, Jess?’
She stares at me for a long time. The moon watches disinterestedly; we’re just another middle-class soap opera.
‘What kind of wine? What kind of chocolate?’ Jess asks.
‘Sancerre and Lindt.’
‘I’ve not got long,’ she says.