Authors: Charlotte Castle
“I don’t think I grabbed any. Sorry. Listen, Mel, Dad’s a bit upset. He didn’t mean to …”
“I know. I know. And I’m sorry. I was tired and … well, I’m sorry. I’ll give him a call this afternoon. It’s just all so …”
“He’ll be fine. He takes everything on the chin, my dad.”
“I know. Aha!” Mel victoriously brandished a small packet of Sweet and Lo, which she had dug from her handbag. “These will do.”
“All meals free! Look, Dad! All meals free!”
Melissa and Simon turned to look at the television screen. The final frame of an advert stared at them: a telephone number surrounded by fireworks and a familiar pink fairytale castle in the background.
“You said the meals were astronaughtily expensive. No, they’re not. They’re
, so we can go, right?” Sarah beamed up at her dad, her face arranged in a well-practiced cherubic expression. The same eyelash-batting look that little girls learn from the age of two and which mothers are largely immune to.
Disneyland. It was a well-worn argument. Sarah desperately wanted to visit the theme park in Paris. Her parents considered it anathema.
To an outsider it might have seemed odd, even cruel, that Sarah’s parents, who could easily afford such a trip, had so far refused to grant the child’s wish. However, it is important to remember that there are many things that little girls urgently crave. Puppies. Ponies. Ten foot teddy bears. Candy-floss factories. Most longed-for desires are forgotten after six months, replaced with newer, better fantasy objects. Some remain, but remain impractical.
On Sarah’s diagnosis, her parents had determined not to spoil her. They had to believe that she had a future, and therefore they had to continue to shape the personality and attitude of their daughter in the same manner they would have had she not been diagnosed with such a ravaging illness. It was hard, seeing her little frame clothed in open-backed hospital gowns, not to promise her the world. She was, of course, fussed over. She was given teddies and game consoles, board games and craft kits. But all these were practical. The child needed entertaining. Riding lessons were promised for when she was better. Theatre trips were booked when she was well enough. But still they held out on Disneyland.
Simon felt strongly about Disneyland, in particular the European park, situated outside Paris. What possible motivation, he wondered, could people have for travelling to France to see a fake plastic palace in a land scattered with real-life fairytale castles? In America, where there was no such thing and popular culture had its foundations in pretence, the cinematic, the futuristic, the ‘stars’, then yes, he supposed there was a place for giant mice, burgers and saccharine sentiments. But in France? The land of chateaux, musketeers, Marie Antoinette and Monet? How could anyone want to visit a fiberglass fabricated kingdom dedicated to capitalism and commercialism? Where the request for a glass of wine and a chunk of Camembert would be met with blank-eyed contempt. It was France for God’s sake.
And the money! Simon was not a cheap man, but he was cautious. His formative years had been spent not in poverty but certainly on the strictest of budgets. His parents' careful planning and saving had been handed down in his psyche. Friends reported back that burger meals in bog-standard, well-known burger joints had set them back £60 for a family of four. For a burger! Not only that – it was a burger which you collected yourself and which you would be expected to clear away. For £60, Simon calculated, he could take his family to a fabulous French restaurant, perhaps by a river, perhaps on the coast where he could introduce them to the gastronomic delights of France. Oysters, lobsters, cheeses, cassoulets … but a burger?
No. Simon had remained adamant. Melissa was largely in agreement. There was no reason to buy passage to France, only to immerse themselves in what they saw as an oversized shopping mall with roller coasters. Their parental gift to Sarah was to feed and stimulate her mind. They wanted to show her wondrous sights that were not experienced by everybody. They wanted to immerse her in the histories and cultures that had created the world in which she lived. To bequeath an appreciation of the foundation on which her society was built. If they truly loved their daughter, they felt, then they would deny her the tawdry falsehood of a theme-park holiday and lavish the gift of knowledge on her instead. Disney could be experienced on television. Versailles could not.
Leukemia or no leukemia.
“Free meals, Daddy. So it won’t be thirty pounds for a burger. It will be free. That’s good isn’t it, Daddy?” Sarah continued to chirrup, patting her daddy on the knee. Simon and Melissa looked at each other with unspoken defeat. Sarah sensed impending victory and moved in for the kill. “So we can go then, can’t we, Daddy? We can go to Disneyland. When I’m better. When I’m in remission again?”
Dr. Bailey, Mrs. Bailey, Miss Bailey.
” Mr. Abnam, a charming and good-looking Brahmin, in a beautifully tailored suit, approached the bed. “Miss Bailey, you are looking, ah, how do you say … perky today. Not giving my nurses too much trouble, I hope?” He looked kindly at Sarah, who forced a smile. She was pleased with the consultant’s manner of addressing her, but irritated to have her Disneyland plea interrupted. “If you are quite happy with, ah, let’s see, oh yes, Ben Ten, then I think I should like to take your parents off for a little chat. Would that be okay, Sarah?” Sarah nodded. “Good. Then Dr. and Mrs. Bailey, would you please be following me?”
As she rose, Melissa kissed her daughter on the head. She dropped the empty coffee cups back into the paper bag and checked that Sarah’s jug of squash, as well as paper and pencil case were all in easy reach. Sarah gave a small smile, her disappointment at being left alone again obvious. Simon felt a stab of sympathy as he turned to follow the consultant.
“Hey, Sarah.” Simon turned back to his daughter. “You’d better decide which of the hellish hotels you want in Disneyland. I’ll pick up a brochure for you later.” With a wink he was gone, leaving an ecstatic Sarah sitting up in bed, clapping her hands.
“I know this is a terrible shock.”
The consultant assessed the silent couple sitting before him. They had not responded as he had expected. In ten years’ experience as a Consultant Pediatric Oncologist, Mr. Abnam was uncomfortably used to giving bad news. Colleagues in adult cancer wards had the onerous task of informing patients that their battle was unwinnable and that they were going to die. Mr. Abnam had the far harder task of informing parents that their child was going to die.
He was used to anger and demands for further treatment. Men often paced the room. Some even punched walls or kicked his waste paper bin. The women tended to cry. A few had been physically sick. Many had walked out of the room. Most blamed him.
It was natural. He was acquainted with the Kubler-Ross model, commonly known as the five stages of grief. He was forced to give the worst possible news to parents. Each differed in their starting position on the arduous journey to acceptance. Many had lived in fear of this conversation for months, perhaps years, knowing deep down that they would outlive their child.
Some parents held onto their optimism so firmly that the news pulled the rug from under their emotional feet, plunging them straight into the first stage of denial. These parents would demand second opinions, accuse him of misdiagnosis, campaign for further bouts of treatment. Normally quite calm, they would remain seated while their minds searched desperately for a way to stop the thing they had been told from being true.
The second stage was anger. These were the bin kickers. Sometimes they moved into anger from denial within the short time they were in his office. Often they had already been in denial for months and the confirmation their child was dying simply jolted them onto this next step on the stairway of grief. They raged and ranted. They accused Mr. Abnam of malpractice, of not caring, of withholding drugs, of not holding a proper degree. He was Asian. Where had he learnt medicine? What did he know anyway, with a tin-pot degree from Karachi?
Mr. Abnam glanced at his University of Cambridge medical degree, framed and displayed on the wall.
Bargaining was the third stage. A uniquely personal experience, this stage usually happened sometime after the conversation in his office. Often the negotiation for an extension to the life of their child was made with a higher power, pleas to God or Gods for their child to be spared. Parents promised to lead better lives, to go to church, to give up drinking and occasionally begged their God to take them in their child’s place.
Depression and then acceptance, the final stops on the exhausting emotional expedition, came later.
Right now, he would likely be dealing with either denial or anger.
He surveyed the mute couple again, assessing their body language, unsure as to which well-rehearsed line to use next. The man, the GP, Dr. Bailey, stared at the floor, his teeth clenched. His wife sat next to him, gazing out of the window, occasionally closing her eyes for a few seconds as if, by closing her eyes and re-opening them, she would wipe away the image in front of her. Like a reality Etch-a-Sketch.
He interrupted the silence cautiously. “Sarah may be quite well for a few weeks. Two months, perhaps three. There will be a quality of life there, and you will have the opportunity to enjoy time with her. As I have already explained, there really is no point in giving her any more treatment. It will only make her feel unwell with no discernible remedial effect. The downturn will be rapid, the leukemia is aggressive. When, and I am afraid it will be soon, she takes a marked turn for the worse, she can be swiftly moved into a hospice specially for children, where she can be made comfortable. Palliative care will be carried out in a specially designed environment. In her last few weeks, we will largely be concerned with pain relief. I have here,” Mr. Abnam reached for a folder by his desk, “a brochure for Madron House. You can go and look around. It is a truly inspiring place, I’m sure that you will find the work of the staff there a comfort.”
Neither parent looked up. Both stared determinedly at their chosen spot.
The consultant broke the silence again. “Sarah is keen on animals, I think. They have rabbits…”
Mrs. Bailey shifted slightly, tears beginning to course down her face, though her expression remained impenetrable. She continued to look out of the window, her hand over her mouth, her head tilted slightly to one side.
“I don’t want her to be scared.” Dr. Bailey’s whisper brought Mr. Abnam’s attention back to the man. The GP shifted in his chair, lifting his eyes for the first time and holding the consultant’s in his gaze.
“I’m scared,” said Mrs. Bailey, and silence resumed.
The wailing increased in volume, as a woman, her sari the most vivid red Simon had ever seen, began to walk calmly out of the crowd towards the funeral pyre.
Other women stepped forward, clawing at her clothes, imploring her to step back from the inferno. But still she glided, emotionless towards the intense heat. Within the hungry flames, her husband’s flesh melted, his fat causing the fire to flare and pop.
Covering his mouth and nose in an attempt to block out the stench, Simon strode out with her. The fire roared and the howls of the women grew in a desperate crescendo. The woman looked back, shaking her head, angrily gesticulating her wish to carry out her self-immolation alone. Simon paused, his desire to join her
, to be ravaged by fire, to step over the boundary of life and death, overwhelming.
The keening of the mourners heightened in pitch as another of the women, incongruously dressed in western clothes, flung herself at Simon, her imploring face known to him, though her blonde hair was stained with the black smuts which floated down from the azure blue sky.
, her voice sounded in his head, though her lips did not move.
* * *
Simon woke with a jolt, confused and disorientated. He didn't recognize the room he was in. The bed felt alien, too hard. He sat up. Melissa mumbled something and stirred.
“This is real, isn’t it?” Simon swung his legs out of the hotel bed and rubbed his hands over his face. “I had a nightmare. This is worse.”
Melissa propped herself on her elbows. “Shit.”
Simon filled the tiny electric kettle and plugged it in. Tea bag. Plastic milk pot. Packet of sugar. Going through the motions. Keep going. Keep moving forward. Wade through the mental glue. He turned the television on, letting the chirpy presenters’ vacuous banter relieve the silence.
“Rombouts coffee biscuits, Mel. Didn’t think they did these anymore.”
“Rombouts. Remember? You used to love them. You nicked a handbag full from that hotel we stayed in just before you had Sarah. Remember? Here.” Simon passed Melissa a cup of weak, warm tea and a familiarly wrapped biscuit. “Rombouts, Mel. You love them.”
Melissa sat up again and took the little biscuit. She had developed her taste for them while at Marshal & Snelgrove’s, the old-fashioned department store in Leeds, where she had first worked supporting herself and Simon through his medical degree. She and the girls from Handbags, along with the lasses from Lingerie, would meet for coffee at 11 each morning, in the austere cafeteria of the store. Its décor, atmosphere and etiquette had gone unchanged since the 1950s. There they played at being grown-ups, taking turns to pour the tea, sharing the tiny cinnamon biscuits and discussing the more amusing customers of the day. They gossiped and bitched, consoled and comforted.
“Of course he likes you. It wasn’t just a one-night stand. I’m sure he’ll call tonight … Of course Melissa is so lucky, settled down already with a soon-to-be doctor!”
Melissa would glow, so proud of her senior marital status, so proud of growing up so quickly. Sitting in the time-warped cafeteria, the career-driven world of the early nineties existing only outside its flock-papered walls, Melissa’s old-fashioned goals focused merely on being a ‘Mrs.’ and becoming a mother.