Chapter Thirty-Four

The rest of the morning is spent brainstorming ideas for the exhibition, which is going to be in six weeks’ time. That’s if Magda can hold off the bank until then. Apparently they’ve issued her with a foreclosure notice, as she’s been defaulting on the mortgage for months.

That’s not all. Now that her finances are no longer a secret, she tells me about how she’s been racking up credit-card debt, remortgaging her apartment to free up capital, gaining interest on the interest with no hope of ever being able to pay back the loan. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the whole time this has been going on she’s kept it a secret from everyone. She didn’t want to worry anyone. She didn’t want to admit how it was all falling apart, not even to herself, so she shouldered it alone.

‘Have you told your children yet?’ I ask, as she finishes telling me everything.

For the first time she falters. ‘No, not yet.’ She shakes her head. She’s being remarkably upbeat, Olympian, in her determination, but I can see in her eyes that telling her children is the worst thing and my heart goes out to her. I have a great affection for Magda and I really respect her. I just wish there was something I could do, some way I could help.

But all I can do is be supportive and try to be positive. So, pinning on a happy face, I attempt to mirror her mood and be upbeat, but it’s difficult. As soon as the gallery closes, I’ll lose my job, and with it my visa to stay in America. I’ll have to move back to London and say goodbye to New York.

At the thought I feel a stab of sadness and my mind flicks to— I stop it, before it can even go there. Like I said, I’m not thinking about that stuff any more. That’s it. I’m done.

With Magda’s blessing I leave work at lunchtime and head uptown to the hospital, where I’ve arranged to meet Kate. According to her, it’s one of the best, and I don’t doubt it. Knowing my sister, as soon as Jeff got his diagnosis, she will have gone full throttle into research mode, finding out the best treatment, the best hospital, the best doctor. She will have made it her mission to become an expert on everything there is to know about testicular cancer.

Sure enough she meets me in the lobby clutching several colour-coordinated files and a briefcase that’s bulging with paperwork.

‘What’s in there?’ I ask, going to give her a hug.

‘Research,’ she says briskly, greeting my embrace with her customary statue-like stiffness.

My sister’s husband might have cancer, but there’s obviously no need to get affectionate about it.

‘Where’s Jeff?’ I ask, glancing around.

‘He went to the bathroom. He’s nervous,’ she says in a way that couldn’t seem less nervous. ‘I told him this was perfectly routine. I’ve got all the statistics.’ She waves a green file at me. ‘According to a recent study done by the National Cancer Institute, if the cancer hasn’t spread outside the testicle, the five-year relative survival rate is ninety-nine per cent.’

But what about the one per cent? pipes up that tiny, terrified voice inside my head that likes to scare me with ‘What if?’s. Determinedly I ignore it.

‘He’s going to be fine.’ I nod.

‘Of course.’ She nods back. ‘No question.’

‘Hey, ladies.’

We both turn to see Jeff walking down the corridor towards us. He’s lost even more weight since I last saw him and I try not to let the shock of his appearance show on my face as I go towards him and give him a hug.

‘So, do you come here often?’ he quips, injecting his easy humour into the situation as always.

I laugh. ‘Is that the chat-up line you used on my sister?’

‘No, she was the one chatting me up,’ he replies, throwing her a mischievous smile.

She tuts indignantly. ‘No, I was not. I remember it distinctly. It was at a Halloween party and you asked me if I’d ever kissed an Irish man.’

‘And what did you say?’ Amused by their quarrel, I turn to my sister. I’ve never heard this story before.

‘I said, “Yes, several, when I worked for McGrath’s law firm in Dublin.”’

She says it completely straight-faced and I can’t help laughing. That is so Kate. She has an answer for everything. Even cheesy chat-up lines.

‘So what did you do?’ I look at Jeff, who’s loving this.

‘Oh, you know, I hit her on the head with my club and dragged her back to my cave.’

‘You did not,’ gasps Kate, her feminist principles visibly rising up within her.

‘No, she’s right, I didn’t,’ he acquiesces with a grin. ‘I told her that I’d never kissed a beautiful blonde English girl before, and could I?’

There’s a pause as they exchange looks.

‘You old romantic,’ says my sister quietly, giving him a little squeeze.

I watch them. It’s a tender moment. Her keeping it all together with her colour-coordinated files, sharp suit and business-as-usual attitude; him looking ready to fall apart, his face unshaved, his eyes betraying his fear. Two people lost in a moment while all around them the big busy machine of the hospital churns.

‘Speaking of softies.’ Jeff turns to me. ‘I hear you tried to rescue a cat the other night, got into a little bit of trouble.’

Oh crap.

‘Trouble? What kind of trouble?’

I swear my sister’s ears are like a metal detector. They detect the slightest thing and that’s it, she’s off, bleeping away.

‘Oh, there was no trouble,’ I say hastily.

‘I have a couple of friends working down the Ninth Precinct. One of the guys recognised the name, said it was a British girl and wondered if Kate was related.’ He winks. ‘I didn’t realise we had a criminal in the family.’

‘Lucy, what on earth have you been up to?’ demands Kate accusingly. My sister is looking at me in the exact same way she looked at me when she caught me giving her Sindy doll ‘a haircut’. Well, how was I to know it wouldn’t grow back? I was four!

‘Nothing,’ I protest, shooting a strangled look at Jeff. ‘There was a misunderstanding. The police didn’t charge me.’

‘Oh my Lord, you were arrested?’ Kate almost shrieks.

‘Well, sort of . . . but I was released without charge,’ I add quickly.

‘Lucy, I’m a lawyer!’ she gasps. ‘If my CEO finds out, this could potentially damage my bid for partner! My God, you’re always getting into trouble.’ She shakes her head and glares at me furiously. ‘It’s always been the same, me having to bail you out, me being the one to pick up the pieces, me being the one—’

‘Hey, honey, it was no big deal,’ interrupts Jeff, stepping in to defend me. ‘My friend told me. No one’s getting into trouble, OK?’ He rests his hand on her arm and I see her calm down. She’s like a tightly coiled spring, which under the circumstances is understandable, but still, I can’t help feeling a bit hurt. ‘Said some guy Adam had to come pick you up,’ adds Jeff, turning to me, eyebrows raised.

His name stings.

‘Who’s Adam?’ frowns Kate.

‘I told you about him the other day,’ I say quietly, in reference to our lunch at the weekend. ‘You probably don’t remember. I was going on about stuff, and you had a lot more important things on your mind.’ I glance at Jeff, then stare awkwardly down at my sandals.

‘New boyfriend, huh?’ he says good-naturedly.

‘No, we just went on a couple of dates. It didn’t work out.’ I shrug. I catch Kate’s eye. She’s looking at me and I can tell she’s thinking of something to ask me, but I glance quickly away. I don’t want to talk about Adam, especially not now. ‘Not everyone’s as lucky as you two,’ I add with a small smile.

‘He obviously didn’t use the Irish line,’ says Jeff with a grin.

‘No, he didn’t,’ I say softly, my mind flicking back to the cinema, sitting together in the darkness, his fingers shyly interlacing mine. ‘He didn’t use any lines.’

‘We should go up to your room.’ Kate suddenly checks her watch and I snap back. ‘You have your appointment with Dr Coleman in ten minutes.’

‘OK, boss,’ salutes Jeff, making a joke of it, but I catch him blanch slightly. He glances at me. I pin on my most encouraging smile and he winks. ‘Right, ladies, let’s do it.’

Dr Coleman is a kind-faced man with frameless glasses, a white coat, which sports about a dozen different pens in his breast pocket, and a patch of white bristles on the side of his chin that he missed when he was shaving.

It’s odd how you notice these trivial details, as if your mind tries to distract itself by concentrating on the minutiae, rather than face the bigger picture.

This is Jeff’s oncologist. He’s a cancer doctor, and the only reason he’s standing here now, in front of me, shaking Jeff’s hand and making polite small talk with Kate, is because Jeff has cancer.

I leave the room and sit outside in the waiting area so they can have some privacy. The doctor is here to talk through the operation, which is scheduled for later this afternoon, and knowing my sister, she’ll want him to answer all of her questions. As I left she was already pulling out sheaves of paper from various folders and asking him to ‘clarify a few points’, as if she’s discussing a high-powered merger and not her husband’s illness.

I flick idly through a bunch of magazines, not really paying attention. My heart’s not in reading about celebrities and goggling over their bikini pictures. Putting them down, I look around the waiting room, my gaze landing briefly on the other people waiting for loved ones and family. I knew there would be a lot of hanging around and I meant to bring a book to read, but at the last minute something stopped me reaching for one of the dozens of unread paperbacks on my shelf and instead grab an old sketchbook of mine.

I pull it out now. It’s all dog-eared around the edges and half the pages are filled with drawings from years ago, but I turn over to a fresh, blank page. I stare at its whiteness, momentarily nervous. It’s been so long since I drew anything that maybe I’ve forgotten how to, maybe I can’t do it any more. Nevertheless the same something that made me reach for this sketchbook makes me rummage around in the bottom of my bag and dig out a pencil. It makes me look around, at the different faces and their expressions, the different emotions – hope, fear, boredom.

And makes me start sketching again.

I’m not sure how much time passes. I vaguely notice the doctor leaving the room, but Kate remains inside, so I remain outside.

Finally I see two nurses pushing an empty stretcher into Jeff’s room and a few minutes later he’s wheeled out. He must be on his way for his operation. I don’t get up. I don’t want them to see me. Instead I watch as Kate follows him down the corridor to the lift, her head bent over him, her thick curtain of blonde hair providing a screen of privacy as she gives him a kiss. Then he’s gone, disappeared into the lift and taken to theatre.

Then I’m there, right beside her, just as I promised, suggesting a walk outside and telling her not to worry, that he’ll be fine.

‘He’ll be fine,’ I say for the umpteenth time, as we sit outside in the quadrangle, drinking coffee. It’s a universal thing: bad coffee and hospitals, the same the world over, I muse, as I sip the bitter dregs from my plastic cup.

‘I know,’ nods Kate for the umpteenth time. ‘Of course.’ She stares silently into her cup, chewing her lip, and then, unexpectedly, I notice a lone tear roll down her face and splash into her coffee. One tear, that’s all, but it speaks volumes. I can’t remember the last time I saw my sister cry. In fact, I’m not sure I can even remember my sister crying. Ever.

I stare at her in shock as she lets out a whimper. ‘Oh, Luce, what if he’s not fine? What if it’s spread? What if—’ She breaks off, unable to say the words.

‘It’s going to be OK,’ I say quietly. ‘The operation will be a success.’

‘How do you know?’ She rounds on me angrily. ‘What if he’s not OK? What if he’s in the percentage that doesn’t make it?’

I flinch slightly, but hold firm. ‘Jeff’s a fighter. He’s not just some random per cent,’ I say determinedly, forcing my voice to remain steady. ‘He’s married to you, remember. He’s got to be made of strong stuff.’

She sniffs, despite herself, and gives me a small smile. ‘I just haven’t allowed myself to even think it, not for one moment,’ she confesses almost guiltily. ‘I’ve got to be capable. I’ve got to be the one who takes care of everything and everyone.’

‘You don’t have to be,’ I say firmly but softly. ‘No one expects you to be.’

‘Yes, they do. You do, Mum and Dad do, work does, everyone does.’ She adopts a different voice. ‘Ask Kate. Leave it to Kate. You can rely on Kate.’ She lets out a heavy sigh.

‘True, we do,’ I say, feeling guilty, ‘and it’s not fair. We shouldn’t rely on you like that, but it’s also up to you,’ I add. ‘You’ve got to tell us. You’ve got to stop taking so much on.’

‘But if I don’t, everything will fall apart.’

‘You don’t know that,’ I argue.

‘Yes, I do,’ she replies obstinately.

‘OK, so let it. Let it fall apart.’

Kate looks at me agog.

‘Seriously, Kate. So what if it does? It’s not life or death.’ As soon as the words leave my mouth, I want to stuff them back in again. ‘Oh God, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that, me and my big mouth—’

She cuts me off with a firm shake of her head. ‘No, you’re right,’ she says, her pale grey eyes meeting mine. ‘It’s not life or death. None of it really matters. Not trying to make some stupid partnership, or training for a silly marathon, or whether to choose the grey penny tile or the white subway for the kitchen . . .’ She trails off, and shakes her head as if in disbelief.

‘Bollocks, Luce,’ she curses, more to herself than to me. ‘I’ve been so incredibly stupid. And blind. This whole time I’ve been thinking that all these other things were important, anxious about everything, worried about achieving stuff, and it’s just meaningless crap without Jeff. He’s what’s important. Without him nothing matters. Without him I don’t have anything.’ She looks at me and now her eyes are glistening and her face is blotchy.

‘All my life I’ve never failed at anything. I’ve been a straight-A student. I put in the hard work and the long hours and I get results, pass tests, run marathons and win promotions. It’s simple. Easy almost. It makes sense. But this doesn’t work like that. It’s so random. There’s no rhyme or reason to cancer, and it doesn’t matter how hard I try, or what I do, I can’t fix this. I’m completely helpless.’ She shakes her head. ‘For the first time in my life I don’t know what to do.’

I’ve never seen Kate look so lost and frightened and I feel a clutch of anxiety. As long as I can remember she’s always been this strong, capable sister. I’ve never seen her afraid and not in control, and until this moment I never realised how much I’ve taken that for granted. She’s always been the one looking after me, and there’s an unconscious security knowing that I’m the one who can get into scrapes and messes, and be frightened and upset, and despite everything she’s always there to pick me up, dust me off and sort things out. Even if it is with a frown and an impatient sigh.

I suddenly realise how much I’ve resented her for that. For her life seeming perfect and always in control. Things never go wrong for Kate. Everything has always gone right. She’s never failed at anything and always got what she wanted, be it the good hair or the exam grades. I feel like such a mess next to her. Her life seemed so sorted. Her emotions were in check. I don’t think she’s ever even been heartbroken. She met Jeff, they got married, and they have lived happily ever after. It’s all seemed so easy for Kate.

Now I realise it’s not easy; it’s never been easy. She’s just felt she had to be strong, to be there for me, and for all my life she has been. Now, though, it’s my turn to be strong for her. I have to be there for her.

Putting my arm round Kate, I give her a hug, and for the first time she doesn’t stiffen and pull away.

And I’m going to be.

For a few moments we remain like that, in the late afternoon sunshine, not saying anything, before finally going back inside to wait. After a while Dr Coleman comes to tell us that Jeff’s out of surgery, the operation was straightforward, and they’re going to keep him in overnight because of the effects of the anaesthetic.

‘In the meantime I suggest you go home and get some rest, young lady,’ he says to Kate, with a firm nod of his head. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’

He turns as if to leave, but she stops him. ‘When will we know if you got it all?’

‘We should get the results back from pathology in the next couple of days.’

‘So you’ll be able to determine the type and stage of cancer?’

He seems momentarily taken aback by her forthrightness, but this is the trained medic coming out in Kate, not the frightened wife.

‘Yes.’ He nods. ‘And what further treatment, if any, will be needed.’

‘Do you think he’s going to be OK?’

But the frightened wife is here. Underneath her files and her candidness, she’s right here and her hope is almost palpable.

Dr Coleman pauses. He must have been asked that question a million times. ‘Let’s just stay positive, shall we?’ He lays his hand on her shoulder, then leaves.

I offer to go home with Kate and this time she doesn’t argue or protest, just mutely nods her head and lets me take control as I find us a cab and give directions. Once inside the apartment I run her a hot bath, make her a cup of tea, then change it for something a lot stronger. Whose stupid idea was it to make tea at times like this anyway?

Wordlessly she does as she’s told. The old capable Kate would have made some comment about the teabags I accidentally leave in the sink, or the choice of towel I find for her in the airing cupboard, or the dirt from my shoes, which I forget to take off and trample across her rug.

The old Kate has been replaced by a girl with a helpless expression, who with clean, damp hair and pyjamas looks about ten years old, and who sits dutifully on the sofa nursing her whisky.

After a while she looks up. ‘I think I’ll go to bed now, Luce. I’m pretty tired.’

I nod. ‘I’ll come too.’

‘Oh, no, you don’t have to. I’ll be fine on my own . . .’ she replies automatically, then trails off, as if realising that actually, no, she’s not all right.

‘It’ll be like when we were little,’ I cajole. ‘Remember how we used to share a bed sometimes?’

‘So we could share secrets under the eiderdown with a torch.’ She smiles.

‘You used to kick me out in the middle of the night.’ I grin. ‘I used to have to creep back into my own bed and it was freezing.’

‘God, I was a horrible big sister, wasn’t I?’

She turns to me sheepishly and I laugh. ‘Trust me, I was a pretty annoying little sister.’

We go into her and Jeff’s bedroom. It’s the polar opposite of mine. Uncluttered and painted a soft beige, it’s all perfect linens and plumped-up pillows.

‘All we need now is a torch,’ I whisper, snuggling under the duvet.

‘And some secrets,’ she whispers back. Turning her face, she looks at me, her eyes searching out mine in the darkness. ‘Want to hear one?’

I nod, as if to say, Go on.

‘That life can change in the blink of an eye. All you have is right now. So don’t ever put off telling someone how you feel about them, don’t assume that they know, because they might not and it might be too late.’

I can tell she’s talking about herself, about Jeff, but it resonates with me.

‘I love you, Kate.’

‘I love you too, Luce.’

She turns over and I spoon her, just like I used to, and as her breathing grows heavier and she falls asleep, I lie awake and think about her secret. I think about it for a long, long time.

You're the One That I Don't Want