‘Till human voices wake us and we drown.’ T.S. Elliot
There are some stories that are rarely told. They slip by silently without words ever really formulated to remember them by. They remain unpracticed, unrehearsed and because of this feel more visceral, closer to the bone. Perhaps these are the ones that are still too tender. Some too raw. Some so old and never articulated that you can hear yourself say, ‘What’s the point of beginning them now? Who’d care anyway?’
And this story? This is one of those stories. Stowed in the shade of low definition, there are few times that I have properly told it and so even now, after so many years, it causes me pain.
(As best I remember)
Anna Meyer Hospital, Florence, Italy 1988
It’s the look on the adults faces that I understand. We arrive at what feels like a huge door and are greeted by a man who smells like cigarettes. He puts one forefinger up to my head and traces over the lump. There have been headaches. Bad ones. Two weeks on and there is this lump.
Someone raises an eyebrow. Somewhere I hear an alarm.
I didn’t leave that day. Nor the next. The time I was there felt like forever. One day spilt into another day of tests, examinations, CAT scans. Later I was told I was in the terminally ill ward of a famous hospital. There were more words like, ‘suspected brain tumour’ but that was all background noise, medical hum. What I knew was that my brother and sister could leave but I couldn’t, that there was fear on my parents’ faces and that something was very wrong.
The girl next to me had red hair and leukaemia. With her wan little face and all that fire around her, she was markedly beautiful and obviously very sick. On the first day she gave me a Kinder Surprise from her bedside table and we became instant friends. Despite a lack of common language, we played sometimes in quiet ways, with stolen time. Often, I’d wake at night. Red lights flickering beside me and a rush of people on call to be by her side. There was a long narrow window that looked out from our room to the incoming traffic from the corridor. I will never forget it. Nor those lights. Nor the day she kept sleeping beside me. ‘Too sick…’ they said, ‘to play.’
There came a time when I’d had enough. I’d become so used to tests and needles that I’d watch the needle ends as they went in. I heard a boy protesting once and decided on the spot that I’d do the same. When they came for me I told them. I said, ‘Enough’ and they replied, ‘Okay.’ But while their words were soft and their manner kind, they drew a picture on my arm, held me down, and did it any way.
Children die and adults lie. I still wake up during the night. Sometimes, even now, I think of my red-haired friend and I sob like a child – afraid of the dark and afraid of those lights.