by Varnya Bromilow –
The doctor was looking at her in a way that she had avoided for 84 years. 84 years she had avoided that look! It was an achievement in and of itself. And it wasn’t as though she’d done anything in particular to avoid the look. She had been cognisant of the fact that it was a look she wanted to avoid, very much, but she had actually taken no conscious steps to avoid it. She had done, by and large, whatever the hell she felt like doing, firm in the belief that what you did didn’t matter in the slightest when it came to avoiding the look. She was surer now of this than ever before. For although she had now received the look, and its associated news, she had survived 84 years without getting it! 84 years of eating whatever she liked; of smoking one cigarette a day, (except for when Jemima died, and that time when she was sure that Dennis was cheating, and that time when Lawrence was in hospital, and when Leonie was pregnant…okay, there were a few times); drinking two glasses of wine a day; doing no exercise whatsoever and certainly no yoga or meditation or whatever else it was that Helen did. She had done as she pleased and she had not received the look until now. It almost made her feel victorious.
“Is there someone I can call for you Mrs Horroway?” The doctor, having given her the look, could not seem to take it off her face. “Do you have a husband or a family member I could call to take you home?”
“No. No, I’ll be fine. Thank you doctor.”
“Is there a doctor you usually see, someone I can send the results to?”
“No. I just moved. I used to live in Melbourne,” she lied.
“Oh,” the doctor looked at her computer. “So…you have family here?”
“Well, I’m glad to hear that. I can also arrange for you to see a counselor if you like? To talk things over? Perhaps with a family member?”
“I’ll think about it,” Ada said carefully. Better to leave them thinking she was considering the offer. Refusing all help just meant more pestering. The doctor was still talking. Something about care plans. The window behind the doctor’s head framed a vivid square of blue sky with a barely discernible wisp of cloud. Was that a cirrus cloud? How could she have lived 84 years and still not know what a cirrus cloud was? In fact, she only knew the name of that one type of cloud. Or was cumulus one also? A cumulus cloud? That sounded right. Cumulus sounded like it might be puffy. Cirrus sounded thin and high. She was pretty sure the cloud in the window was a cirrus.
“…so we can sort that all out on your next visit, okay?” The doctor said.
Ada got up to leave. Her knees creaked in protest at the doctor. Poor old knees. They had served her well, really. Still her own bones, the same knees she’d had as a small, runty child, clambering over moss-covered logs. Her own bones. She didn’t know a soul of their age who hadn’t had at least one replaced. The very same bones, child bones, sitting there inside her withered flesh.
The doctor stood awkwardly. “Could you make an appointment with the receptionist for next week? That will give us time to get things in place. And remember. It’s your prerogative to change your mind of course. I do think you’re making the right decision but it’s natural to have second thoughts. We can talk more about it next week perhaps? After you’ve had a chance to talk about it with your family.”
“Yes, yes, fine.” Ada interrupted in an effort to wrap up the doctor’s speech. She opened the door.
“Good-bye Mrs Horraway.” The doctor had that damn look on her face again.
“Don’t look so sad dear,” Ada said. “I’m the one with the cancer, not you.”
The doctor looked shocked and then embarrassed. Then she laughed and shut her door.
Outside, Ada sat down on the brick wall outside the doctor’s office and stared at the sky for several minutes. She was overwhelmed, in her usual way, by the constancy of its blueness. Where she came from, skies were not usually this colour. Though she had lived in Perth for 40 years, she was routinely surprised by the unerring blueness of the sky. It would be boring, she imagined, if you didn’t come from a place where it was unerringly grey.
After a little while, she got in the car and drove towards home. On the way she stopped at a petrol station and bought gas and three of her favourite chocolate bars. Normally she only had two. She scoffed one as soon as she got back in the car and was noticed by a smiling youth, though it was unclear whether he was smiling at her or her car. She flipped down the rear vision mirror and had a look. There was a very faint trace of chocolate wedged in one of the deep corner wrinkles of her mouth. Her tongue darted out and attacked it. Her eyes looked back at her. You are now a person with cancer. It was intensely irritating. She was also irritated at the condition of her eyes, magnified through her thick glasses. Her eyes used to be bluer, she was sure of it. Bluer irises and whiter whites. In general she didn’t care a fig about looking old but the decline of her eyes bothered her. Chunks of pterygium, bulging from their viscous surfaces. Fine lines like someone had got out a red biro and scribbled on her eyeballs. And where was all this fluid from? This icky moisture that now collected so readily around her too-pink eyelids. It was as though she was starting to leak from the inside. And that was just above the waistline.
She hissed out a sigh, flicked the mirror back up and drove off. Well, better pack it all in while she could. She should make a list of things to get done. Is that what they meant by bucket list? What bucket? Whose bucket? Silly term. It sounded like when you died your remains were scraped into a bucket. A list of things to do before I am scraped into a bucket. She giggled. Then sighed again. Poor old Dennis. He’d be left alone. They had always thought he would be first.
Heatwave by The Supremes crackled on the radio. She turned it up, blasting it around the tinny insides of the car. She roared it out, insofar as one could roar it out with the voice of an 84-year-old. It was more like a warbly shouting.
Whenever I’m with you
I get all caught up inside
Maybe you know me now
Or maybe I feel so alive
Her left window was down to catch the sea breeze. She stopped at the lights. A middle-aged woman with two small children in the back of a gigantic truck-car looked over and smiled at her. The kids giggled and pointed. Ada grinned and sang straight at them:
Whenever I see your face
Tears all over the place
Don’t you want me still?
I think I’m going to be ill.
It was, without doubt, the best thing about being so old. The utter lack of care for what anyone else thought. Ada loved being old. She truly loved it. She had been an eccentric child and while children were permitted to be eccentric, and to a limited extent so too were young adults, the long years between 25 and 65 rendered any wildness of character wholly inappropriate. She remembered vividly walking along the sea when she was 40, listening to some bossanova on her headphones and starting to dance. There were only a few people around but her behavior was so noteworthy, so unusual, that she fielded several patronising smiles. They think I’m crazy, she realized. So, she stopped. It wasn’t until she was about 67 that she slowly realized she could begin to act like herself again. It was now acceptable, because like children, eccentricity in seniors was thought of as charming rather than insane.
She loved being old. That was the worst thing about it.
“Ada” is the opening chapter of a novel-in-progress by Varnya Bromilow