Friday, January 25, 2008

So Young

It began, as these things do, with a splash of blood.

More than a splash, to be honest: about a third of the stool was livid scarlet, barely discernible through the pinkish swirl. When he used the toilet paper, it came away red. Yep: this was real.

He generally took a dump early evening, just after getting back from the uni. It was Friday today, Kiera was calling from downstairs, they had ordered in and were going out, they were due to meet the others in the Salutation in half an hour and he was shitting blood. He thought: this is not going to fuck up my weekend. It will not. He flushed, showered and cleaned the bowl and went downstairs.

Kiera was his girlfriend of two years. She had spent the last hour and a half getting ready, and she was jumping from foot to foot, eager to begin the weekend. Kiera worked for the council, as a housing officer; they had woken up together at Glasto and since then it had been more or less golden. He told Kiera she looked beautiful, as he always did at this time of the week. His knowledge about women was this: if a girl has spent hours getting ready to go out, it’s best to tell her she looks beautiful. And what made it easier was the fact that this was always true.

He did not mention the blood, and over the course of the evening it slipped from his mind. They met his uni colleagues in the Salutation and did a roster of Oxford Road bars, ending up at a house party near their home in Whalley Range. At times he perceived what could be a long term problem (he had this image of a nameless water break in the good roaring oceans of this night and his life) but there were friends he hadn’t seen for years, he was paying for one drink in three, there were St Helens stories and half-formed arguments and shouted conversations with strangers in bars. It was a great night; it always was.

Monday he spoke to a doctor he knew at the uni (he was a project assistant at the medical school). The guy said: people don’t get bowel cancer at twenty-four. Over fifty, you should be worried. If this happens again it’s probably haemorrhoids. Eat a bowl of Alpen before you go to bed.

It did not happen again until, suddenly, it did. That summer they had taken two weeks’ leave and travelled around Italy. Returning home, they had moved out of the house share in Whalley Range and into their own flat in Chorlton. He was a full project manager now, and Kiera had got an honorarium from MCC. Wednesday evening they had been eating Poppolino’s pizza and watching the regional news, they were going to Kiera’s high school reunion at the weekend and his girlfriend was worried about her weight. He told her that she looked around seventeen and weighed about a kilogram. As happy and full of life as she was Kiera’s soul echoed with insecurities from her schooldays.

That got him thinking about his own childhood in St Helens. A town still reeling from Thatcher’s decimation of the mining and glasswork industries, St Helens was full of gangs, pregnant fifteen-year-olds and a multitude of social problems. As a kid none of this had meant anything to him (when he thought of himself as a child nothing came except a sense of something unformed, a head bowed, at once alive in the town and without recognition of Victoria Square and the Needle and the municipal buildings) and then – kapow! The physical changes were fairly straightforward, and he never made a big deal of masturbation and sex. What he couldn’t handle were these new emotions invading his body. Suddenly he needed an identity, suddenly he needed to keep up with his friends, suddenly he needed to go to Liverpool to watch bands and not have to get the last train back; suddenly you are alone, and no one loves you, and yet there is a dark pleasure in this loneliness, and in locking yourself away to cry. But then he had lost his virginity and figured out, slowly, how you could make sense of these new aspirations and desires.

Thinking these thoughts, he stood from the throne, turned to flush and saw, again, that red swirl.
The doctor he spoke to the next day wasn’t as relaxed as the uni guy had been. He recommended a scan. The appointment was in two weeks. Over those weeks he got wrecked, made love, worked, saw a couple of films and then he went to the clinic and found out that this long-term problem was actually just a short-term problem. Six months. At best.

By November he was in the MRI.
Separated from the other beds by a plastic slash of curtain, within reach of a table cluttered with well wishes from the uni (from his friends in Leeds where he had studied and found himself), from his friends in St Helens (where he was born and raised), and from the great intercontinental sprawl of his own family - he slept and read and puked and thrashed out the chemo. His hair had gone, in snarls and clumps. He had lost three stone, seemingly through his arse. He wore a colostomy bag.

Grandiloquently he had announced in bars that he was going to kick the shit out of cancer. He had joked about getting the world’s most embarrassing terminal disease. Often he felt guilty when talking about it, and had registered the blank, disturbed look people get when unpleasant subjects are jolted into their minds. He had thought of shutting the fuck up about cancer; but Kiera had told him that true friends would understand, and listen.

And she had been right. Yet over the last month or so the flood of visitors had reduced to a stream, then a drip. He took no offence at this. People had their own lives.

His parents, of course, still visited, and though he loved them, he was always happy when they left, and felt an absurd guilt about what he was doing to them.

He needed only Kiera, and she was in daily. He told her he loved her, many times. He stressed that, after he was gone – and by now it was laughably clear that he wasn’t going to make Christmas – that she should find someone else. There’s no one like you though, she said. It won’t be like it was with you.
But Kiera couldn’t be there all the time. And the nights – the nights were bad.

It was on one of these long ward nights that he thought about converting to Christianity. His attitude to religion had always been derisive, when his bowels were clean. But faith offered what nothing else could: the possibility of continuation. In the end you have no choice but to delude yourself. I am sorry; sorry Richard Dawkins, sorry Primo Levi. I am not strong enough to resist this temptation when the pistol is at my head. I want to sit on a cloud and wait for others to join me. Convince me.

Yet he never quite convinced himself, and in early December his thoughts swung from death to life.
Back at the uni he had all sorts of big ideas about himself, as young men do: he wanted to be a rock star or a writer or at least something in the media. These were not so much goals as semi-articulated expressions of an intense drive to get out there, to be. He spent the summer before his final year on Big Brother. He came fourth and stayed in London for a while and partied and shagged around and did coke and eventually ran out of money and crawled back to Leeds to repeat the last two semesters.

The only documentary evidence of his life on this planet was a few hundred hours of videotape in a warehouse somewhere. How little impression we make on the world; like stones skimmed across water. And yet there were few regrets. He had been a decent man, he had known love, he had known women, and if he had not completely lived his life to the full, at least he had always tried. The only regret about his life was that there had not been enough of it. But can you ever get enough, really? If you leave nothing behind but a few Excel spreadsheets on the shared drive and a few stories told in Oxford Road bars and some fading memories and emotions in the heads and hearts of those that loved and knew you – was the whole thing just a waste of time?

What he could have told them was: it feels like sleep. And sleep is good.
But by then he was beyond talking: by the night of December 19 he could make sounds but no real words.
He had no idea of what was happening except that Kiera was there and that was good. The warm weight of her hand in his palm was good and she was saying things and that was good. But she looked upset. What could possibly upset you? Don’t you love to sleep?

It was like when you crash out in the middle of the afternoon after a heavy night in Hyde Park: pushed down into the mattress by strong, kind arms. Unconsciousness hits you like a train. In Hyde Park, in the afternoons, we used to walk through the shadows of the trees and have a pint at the Drydock. Were you there? We’ll be together in the springtime. And the sun will shine.

Tipping over from something into nothing, he could still hear Kiera’s voice. Kiera’s voice was good but he could always hear the noises on the ward and that was bad. He thought when Kiera had to go he would put his IPod on and listen to Bob Dylan. He loved Bob Dylan. He could put the IPod on or he could listen to the songs in his head now. Either way, the quality was awesome. All Along the Watchtower. Blowin in the Wind. Lay Lady Lay.

Max Dunbar

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