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A Still Life

Rating: PG-13

I put my head round the door of the studio.

"I'm away, then."

Helen didn't answer. Brush in hand, she stared out across the lawn. A half-finished watercolour was on the easel. A crumpled rag, more brushes, paints, a jar of murky water, were on the table beside her. A stripe of sunlight spilled through the French doors trapping her in its beam, flooding her with golden light. She was there, but not there. Somehow stilled.


"The thing is, Becki," she said, without looking round. "I've found a lump in my right breast."

I shook my head, determined to dislodge the words before they could take root, remembering the wine-red leaves, the aching blue sky of Vermont. The mountain air was still in our lungs. Standing outside our log cabin, hands deep in the pockets of my jacket I had watched a hawk hang above the valley. Helen hadn't looked so well in ages, running through the trees, knee-deep in crackling leaves, bending to pick them up in handfuls and throw them in the air. They fell around her like bronze butterflies. The back seat of the hire car had filled with sketches and half-finished watercolours. "Stop, Beck, just a minute!" We'd veer off the freeway, finding a place to pull up so she could capture the moment. From the tiniest detail to the broadest canvas - the contours of the land, the dark bulk of the forest, the arch of the sky.

"What does it feel like?" I asked.

"Small. Hard. Like a dried pea."

"Is it sore?"

"No. It doesn't hurt at all."

"Well then."

"I'm ringing the GP."

It would be harmless, a cyst, no cause for alarm. Things had been going so well.

In the breast clinic they frowned at the mammogram and went ahead with a biopsy. They refused to confirm or deny the result of the X ray. They didn't need to. Helen was stoical. It was the physical shock of the needle, the extraction of that small cone of tissue that brought tears to her eyes.

"What's happened to the wider picture?" she asked. "Why has everything reduced to a sliver of tissue on a slide?"

That night neither of us slept. Helen was pretending to, turning away from me, keeping very still. I could tell from her breathing that she was awake, but I didn't know how to speak to her. I lay on my back staring into the enormous black space that had suddenly opened up between us and tried to imagine that mutant batch of cells, already a centimetre in diameter. I imagined it as a plastic ball which I threw, high and hard, away from us, watching it cross the sky. But like a bad dream it was back. I took a sledge hammer to it and it bounced away refusing to be pinned down. I ran after it, screaming for it to stop, to let me catch it. Perhaps I had fallen asleep, because I came round with a jolt, thrashing, sweating, and Helen wasn't there. I knew where she'd be and what she'd be doing but I couldn't go there with her.

Defiant next morning Helen showed me the drawing.

"I wanted to visualise the tumour. To hold it at arm's length and look at it. Take control."

"And did you?"

"What do you think?"

The picture showed a tangle of spiky black lines, more abstract than anything Helen had ever drawn before. Among the lines angry red starbursts welled up, spilling out over them, threatening to take over. It looked unfinished, like the half-forgotten way out of a maze, a road map with nothing but cul-de-sacs. I looked at Helen. Her face was flushed and her eyes were bright. I didn't know how to reply.

The spider plant looked sickly and in need of surgery itself. The edges of the posters were curling. The decor was modern, as clinics went. A sad reflection, that a breast clinic was so state-of the-art, embedded in this crumbling, red-brick Victorian workhouse. There was a drinks machine. I bought coffee, quite decent coffee. Helen sat in silence, refusing all drinks and magazines. I took her hand and squeezed it. It was surprisingly cold. We were characters in one of her paintings. The Waiting Room. There was a clock on the wall but no one marched to that tune. Helen didn't watch the movements on the clock face, nor hear the click when a new minute began. She stared at everything unseeing, including me. None of her usual observing, sketching, jotting down for later. After a few glances at my watch I gave myself a talking to. Why keep checking? Time meant nothing.

"I feel so well," said Helen, shaking her head. "I look so well."

Most of the women in the room looked well. Some had had their treatment, would be here for a check-up, would be well. But many would be like Helen, fine on the surface.

The surgeon confirmed what we'd already been sure of - the growth was malignant. Surgery was needed. But it was a discrete growth, the lump alone could be removed. Would she like to think about it? She could take all the time she needed. A nurse showed us to an empty room where we could spend time alone.

"Why would I need to think about it, knowing what I know?" said Helen.

"Maybe because they are going to lop off bits of your body?"

"No they're not. It's a small incision, a lumpectomy. I just want them to do it now, yesterday. There's an invader colonising my body. Why would I wait?"

The night before the surgery, the registrar came to the ward to admit Helen. He eyed two females on adjacent beds, and wavered, unsure of his target. We put him right. Producing a green marker pen and, opening the identified-as-patient's shirt, said: "X marks the spot?" And drew a crooked green cross on her unprotected white flesh. Thank God this man wasn't the surgeon. Perhaps we had made him nervous but it looked a worryingly imprecise science. For the first time I felt relieved not to know what went on in an operating theatre. I looked away from his act of vandalism, wiping my eyes with hospital paper towels. A stranger, drawing on her, it was all wrong. It was a violation. Sometimes I felt I was inside her body too. We were both violated. I wanted to shout at him, grab the marker pen. I caught Helen's eye and she shrugged.

When he'd finished, a more familiar Helen said brightly, "We'll be off to dinner now, then. The nurse at the breast clinic said it was okay to go out the night before, have a gin and tonic..."

Helen caught his expression and stopped. It was as if she'd pulled a gun. I wish she had. Let's be Thelma and Louise, leave him for dead, run amok, rob a store and drive off a cliff. Let's go down together. I felt so scared for her I'd have offered myself for surgery, if it would have done any good. This skinny white-coated man could only hold the door, frowning, as we left.

In the wine bar across the road, we ate salmon fish cakes, curly endive salad and limp bootlace fries. We dipped the fries in ketchup. A bottle of house white went down better than gin.

"Indelible ink. I'll never get rid of that cross," said Helen, between mouthfuls. "Did you see him as he made his mark? Such confidence in his ability, as if he could shape the whole world. Where do men get that?" She shook her head and drank another glass of wine.

Radiotherapy took six weeks. Encrypted with more hieroglyphs, this time in black marker pen, Helen was forbidden to wash. She drove over, dutifully, to endure the malevolent eye of the machine, which rotated and pointed, creating hard rippling ridges on her breast, like wet sand exposed by a retreating tide.

"Worst sunburn I've ever had," she grumbled, sitting topless in front of her desktop fan, turned to its coolest setting.

"I'm like a rare steak. And I'm losing my hair. Think I'll take up a sport where an aerodynamic head is a bonus. Diving. What do you think?"

"I know what we need," said Helen when her treatment ended. We were sitting up in bed with the Sunday papers, drinking tea. "Two weeks in Cornwall. Let's get a last minute cancellation, I'm feeling lucky." Only she could have said that.

How strange it is, when moving away from the equilibrium of small changes, that extreme good luck, as well as bad, seems to be a given. We did find a last minute cancellation and sparkling weather to match. Cornwall under a Mediterranean sky, cliff-tops waving with sea pinks, tight surf curls below. Those inlets of buttery sand, dotted with striped windbreaks. Helen was in heaven. She spent long hours on the beach with canvas chair and easel, painting the changing skies, the racing clouds, the pattern of incoming waves as they laced the sand.

The deafening cries of rival gull colonies on the guano-covered rooftops of Mousehole woke us at dawn every morning. And we sat in the living room of our tall, rented house and watched fledgling gulls edge along the roof tiles to the safety of the chimney stacks. The bedroom window revealed an expanse of shimmering bay stretching all the way to Marazion.

We set off along the coast path. I felt so tired I could hardly manage the five miles.

"Keep up, Beck. This is the best bit."

Prussia Cove was a favourite. A fisherman's cottage like an inverted coracle, tar and bits of wire holding it all together. I felt rather like that. The sea warm and green. And still the sun poured down. Every day for two weeks. Was this a record?

And now we are sitting on the quayside at Mousehole, in the late sun, drinking beers and watching gulls. A fishing boat is leaving the harbour for Newlyn, spreading a long V behind it on the glassy water. Helen forgets to sketch, lets her pad drop beside her and just sits. She looks relaxed and yes, contented. I examine the idea and wonder whether I am ready to join her. For the time it takes to drink a cold beer, to watch a drop of moisture roll slowly down the glass and for the sun to hang there, orange, catching the top of Helen's head and picking out the stray auburn hairs, I can arrest time and tide. By an effort of will, I could make this truce last longer, long enough to allow the knot in my chest to loosen. I have begun, just begun, to experience things in the same way as Helen. Where everything has a known boundary, a sharp, clear edge like crystal. Nothing is stale and tarnished. Life on the very rim of existence. Helen's face has the glow of Cornish sun. She looks so well. At this moment I'm confident that she is well. If I tiptoe around, if I speak in whispers, perhaps the bubble will remain intact.