Yesterday, as I sat waiting in the bright reception area of the private oncologist’s Harley Street office I had visited now three times, I experienced a detachment – not imagined; no, it was a tangible, physical phenomenon. Something had plucked within. An untethering of self from experience.
I quite liked going there. The receptionists – young, pretty, interchangeable – were polite, always. And welcomed me as though we were at a spa. The flowers that day were huge lilies with gaping petals and thick stems. Stamens, snipped clinically, left smudged red pollen on the white petals. You couldn’t un-see O’Keefe. Two of us were there, waiting. With the un-rushed certainty of time blocked out in Outlook playing out as intended. From a tufted ottoman beside the window, I looked out at the street below.
My mother was always telling me over the phone about people who had recently died. Reminding me of so-and-so. Oh, of course I knew her – remember she used to stop by with her niece (sweet girl, you two were friends). Yes, yes, her. Well, she died last week. Isn’t it? Terrible. I wasn’t sure why this conversational habit bothered me so much. It wasn’t gossipy, there was no malice. In fact, these frequent missives felt propelled by an unspoken loss. An exhaustive proof that we, whatever it was that bound us all together within the first-person plural, were not surviving. I decided my complaint was primarily formal, the set-up and punchline structure she employed; making me remember knowing, invoking memories of a person, of a life, then unveiling the death. It induced a rollercoaster lurch within my solar plexus. Tinged with a guilty numbness as I considered the absurd luxury aesthetic of my company healthcare provisions. The screenings, pre-emptive tests and speedy follow-ups that sustained life. I knew that we, the children who remained, would do so with weakened bonds. No common country or culture linked us other than British (which could only be claimed hyphenated or else parenthesized by the origins of those whose deaths our mothers detailed over the phone). It was survival only in the sense that a meme survives. Generational persistence, without meaning or memory.
I’d told my boyfriend it was fine. I was fine. He didn’t need to accompany me. Still, he insisted we at least meet somewhere after work for a drink. An outing to lift the spirits. Fine. It was a nice enough evening, unseasonably warm for September. We drank beer on the grass outside the old pub near Blackfriars station. And everything, I told him, was fine. False alarm. False words could feel true. He was easily convinced, accustomed to happy endings and painless resolution. Nothing to worry about, we clinked the necks of our bottles together.
‘I know I’ve been distant,’ he said, ‘not myself.’
I looked at my legs, shining brown in the evening sun. We’d moved on from biopsies, consultations and assertions of relief to talking about his work; big, important things he was peripherally involved in at Whitehall.
‘I don’t think I’ve been good company of late,’ he said.
The weekend before, he’d slept with his head pressed against my chest, curled up like a foetus. Monday morning, he’d wrapped his arms around me so tight that I stayed in bed for an extra while and stroked his hair. Until I had to leave for work.
‘Sometimes, I just –’ He stopped and picked at the label on his beer bottle. It looked damp and soft from condensation and he tore off little pieces at a time, balled them up between his finger and thumb and flicked the sticky globs into the grass. When we’d first dated, he would brandish his name to maître d’s with a booming exuberance. I wondered whether that sense of self had been picked away, or whether his self were only a dinner jacket he put on and then took off again. Head tilted back, he glugged from the bottle. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed and I imagined cool beer flowing down his throat, along the curve of his chest and sloshing into his belly.
We met at college, he liked to say. Though I barely knew him back then. He was already in third year when I matriculated. I didn’t remember ever speaking to him, though I knew his face and name from student politics. No, he only noticed me in the years after, at events in the occasional intersection of our overlapping social circles. My own social capital had increased – infinitesimally, immeasurably – since my student days. Money, even the relatively modest amount I’d amassed, had transformed me. My style, my mannerisms, my lightly affected City vernacular, all intrigued him. He could see the person I was constructing. And he sensed opportunity. He’d read of Warren Wilhelm Jr’s transformation to Bill de Blasio.
Accidentally-on-purpose, he bumped against me at a rooftop barbecue in a Stepney warehouse conversion. Laid the Hugh Grant charm on thick as we sipped warm, fruity Pimm’s from Mason jars. Canary Wharf gleamed and ached, beautiful, behind him. He had seemed too much, then, as though he were caricaturing himself. Over the ensuing months and years, I began to appreciate the elastic nature of his personality. I watched him jostle and mess about with his close friends. Debating big ideas with bigger words and a brutal sense of group humour. They poked fun at one another mercilessly, then chortled: bent over, knee slapping, in a near-parodical show of mirth. After, in the back of a minicab, he’d greet the driver by name and navigate expertly from idle chit-chat to unlocking a life story. He asked thoughtful follow-ups and never interrupted. He was polite, yes, but not stuffy. He softened his accent. Said, ‘Good night, man,’ sincerely, punctuated with a clasped two-hand handshake, before climbing out of the car.
‘This is nice,’ he said finally, almost smiling. And it was. Tomorrow seemed further away. Though the upcoming weekend with his parents still loomed large; their anniversary party hosted at the family’s country estate. What should have felt, if not casual, then at least pleasantly exciting, was instead rapidly materializing into hard reality. I nodded, and he turned to face the cars lined up at the crossing.
‘I’ve been – I mean my ex.’ He paused, then started again. ‘My ex has been texting. She got a puppy.’
A puppy? I repeated, turning the syllables over. His ex would be at the anniversary, too, I knew. She was a childhood friend, virtually a part of the family, as his mother had phrased it. They’d grown up together frolicking across the English countryside like Colin and Mary Lennox. Looking at him, crouched there on the grass, with his cheeks and watery eyes contorted into an approximation of stoicism – I felt a curiosity, I wanted to know.
‘Forget it,’ he said. ‘I shouldn’t have mentioned the puppy.’
Our second bottles were empty. The background chatter had swelled to a buzz of only occasionally dissonant rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb. I asked to see the puppy, if he had a picture. He set down his bottle and stared at me for a while.
‘Just forget about the puppy,’ he said.
We took the District Line back to Putney. The declining sun smouldered behind chimneyed rooftops as we walked along quiet roads from the station to his house. Reading before bed, he smiled sideways over his Kindle at me. Later, as he slept, I watched his chest sink and swell. Heard his occasional, wheezing snores. He’d thrown off the bed sheet and lay on his back in a cherubic pose: left foot against right knee, right arm bent around his head, fingers spread soft on the pillow. Cock pink against his thigh. Gravity smoothed his forehead and cheeks and I recognized the boy-ish, pouting face from his driving licence.
Did I prefer this to sleeping alone?
My neighbours’ lives were tangled up in their partners. They’d cleaved from their parents and unto each other, sharing bills, food, rent. I did not imagine they could easily separate. We had no such obligations. But we still visited galleries, watched plays, attended parties, hosted parties, travelled, cooked, together. We said we. This seemed a necessary aspect of life, like work. Or exercise.
Image © Martin Addison