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Shirley Mitchell

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Getting Through
By Shirley Mitchell
Thursday, April 26, 2012

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Result of cancer treatment



«Think of something nice,» said the nurse, pulling the icy gloves over Rosemary's wrists. "Memories will get you through."
She smiled with the sort of smile with which a good nurse can convey the idea that you are her favourite patient and that she will see you through anything.

Rosemary had been relieved to make this connection with Pasquale right from the start. Settling her in on the initial treatment bed, keeping up a constant stream of chatter to take her mind of the Heath Robinson array of threatening tubes and throbbing machinery. Trying out a bit of English .
"Shit" she had said as she left the tiny claustrophobic room.
She seemed particularly proud of finding the translation of the French good luck word. Rosemary decided not to tell her that the better interpretation was Break a leg.

On this, her third session,  Rosemary looked round the sterile room at the other women lying on the hard, high, bed-chairs, hooked up to the plastic bags of poison to which she had now progressed and wondered what they were thinking. One was chanting a mantra, another reading, a very pretty young girl was quietly crying.

Rosemary closed her eyes but all she could bring to the forefront of her mind was her daughter Ghislaine, outside in the waiting room, surrounded by paperwork taking up a whole row of chairs. Some was her own stuff from school – marking, reports, lesson plans. But most was Cancer-related. They had joked on the way here that whereas they first came armed with a n A4 envelope, this had progressed to a manilla folder, then a briefcase - "It'll be a suitcase next," laughed Ghee. "And then a cabin trunk," quipped Rosemary.

It was never so easy to be flippant on the way home. Not that there was much pain then – just a little soreness round the disc inserted under the skin of her chest. It was the sure knowledge of the agonies to come – perhaps a week, maybe ten days – then the piercing pain would strike the very centre of her shin bones.

Bone pain. Train. Rosemary was back in the past – eighteen and at the end of her first term at college. She had been so happy – cycling back from Teaching practice, visual aids strapped to her back, notebooks bulging from the handlebar basket. Friends swarmed out of the hostel porch, swept her along the corridor and up the stairs to the office. The Principal put down the phone.
"A telegram, my dear – you are needed at home. Your father is ill. I'll take care of your ticket and your friends will help you pack ..."
Jeannie had accompanied her to the station, found her a seat, hugged her farewell.
Rosemary stared through the window at the darkness. Suddenly she saw something, didn't want to see – could not help but recognise the scene projected from her subconscious onto the grimy glass – a funeral procession. Just a mere moment but she knew. Dad was dead.
The woman opposite leaned across and tapped her knee.
"Whatever it is, my dear – Jesus will help you through it ..."
Rosemary turned away, blocked her ears, made her distaste evident. The woman went back to her newspaper.
At the station her mother waited with two uncles and an aunt.
'He's gone, Rosemary, your dear dad's gone."
Rosemary cradled her. The uncles led the way to the taxi.
"Oh how he suffered," sobbed her mother.
"Cancer of the bone," whispered the aunt. "Such agony in his legs, poor soul ..."

Rosemary opened her eyes. She felt a surge of liquid in the tubes dangling above her head. The nurse, not Pasquale – a  younger woman, black and beautiful and bald as a coot – a fellow sufferer in remission – a living inspiration - was fiddling with the valve, adding a more deadly mixture.

An Arab woman was being ushered in – tall and swathed in black robes , only her eyes visible. Her husband, fierce and bearded stood in the doorway, protective – possessive. A nurse shooed him away. Unusually, the woman was taken into a small side room – obviously she needed some persuasion to disrobe. When she emerged Rosemary gasped. She had never seen such an exquisite creature. Slender but shapely, perfect skin, features to die for and marvellous eyes. She nodded at Rosemary but then her eyes went to the door. She seemed to be anxious about her husband. Maybe that kind of marriage was not so bad after all.

Rosemary's eyelids drooped. One of the drugs was sending her off – Maybe she would  dream about her own marriage?   (had she said this very French expression of disgust aloud?Well, so what? All her fellow patients would agree it was extremely applicable in this room.)She repeated it. Pwwhhgh! More likely  the divorce …

There was no daughter to help her through that. Just young Billy – three and a half - and she had to take him with her when she went up to Grays Inn to her solicitor's office. She need not have worried – he was snatched up by the secretaries and plied with sealing wax and staplers and pencils and paper clips.
"He'll be fine," kindly Mr King assured her as he led her up the narrow lane to the High Court.
Rosemary had always liked this part of London – but not today. The entrance was so imposing and a throng of paparazzi (though this word was not then in general use) clustered on the pavement. They sprang to attention as a vision straight out of a Hollywood movie strode towards them. A comely young woman, all in white with lots of gold bangles and a white poodle with a gold collar strutting in front of her on a long lead.
Mr King hurried Rosemary  into the cloistered interior. Here people stood about, waiting for their lawyers, showing each other horrendous photographs of bruised limbs.
"Would you like to sit in on a case," asked Mr King. "We have time and it might prepare you ..."
Rosemary nodded and they went into a very ordinary room – rather like the Council Ofiice where Rosemary sometimes  attended  monthly meetings.
"I'll go and find our lawyer," said Mr King.
Rosemary sat down next to a rather drab middle-aged woman. The judge entered from a side door and sat at a wooden table. There was a commotion at the main door. Rosemary's neighbour snarled.
"The bitch!" she muttered . "Broke my lad's 'eart, she did".
It was the vision in white, struggling against the ushers who were forcibly taking charge of her pet. And the defendant was a young fellow whose graphic picture of his naked thigh had been thrust almost under Rosemary's nose a few minutes ago. Rosemary felt faint and was glad to see Mr King gesturing from the corridor.

She was introduced to a bewigged creature who , it seemed, was expecting to  be "briefed" on her whole case – and life – at top speed in a matter of minutes. A bell sounded.
"We're in Court One" he said and led the way.
Nothing could have prepared Rosemary for Court One. A complete contrast with the room she had just been in. The judge's bench was high and imposing , the wood paneling behind it festooned with shields and emblems. She was pushed gently towards the "dock" which proved to be five steps up and made her feel instantly guilty.
As she surveyed the spectators in the body of the court, including a journalist scribbling away on a reporters' pad,  she was sure she would really faint this time …

The judge swooped in,  all red robes,and splendid wig – the proceedings began.
He could not have been kinder. Kept leaning towards Rosemary with a fatherly smile as though trying to reduce the distance, physical and pecking-order-wise between them.
"How big is your house, my dear? Are you quite sure the accommodation is adequate for you and your child?" he asked.
"Not huge, your honour, but it's fine for us, thank you …............

Thank you.  Merci ..." This to Pasquale who was dismantling the tubes, removing the gloves from Rosemary's lap. She pretended to tut tut but there was a twinkle in her eye,
"Couldn't take it, eh," she said.
"I wore them for twenty minutes," said Rosemary, guiltily aware that she had in fact pulled them on and off constantly during that time.
She wondered at the stamina of a younger patient who had opted for the equivalent frozen turban in a desperate bid to keep her hair.

"Well now, was it good – your dream?" asked Pasquale, ticking a few boxes on the form Rosemary must sign before she was allowed out.
"Not really," said Rosemary. "I think I have to jettison the bad memories before I find comfort in the good ones – if I can delve that deep."
She was particularly proud of having remembered the french word for 'delve.'
"They will come back, I promise ... take care now – see you next month."

In the taxi Ghee made sure her mother was comfortable, then foraged for her Marks Register and began ticking off boxes.
"Always boxes to tick, forms to fill in, " muttered Rosemary, trying in vain to stay awake for a sight of the Eiffel tower, the Stade de France, the Sacré Coeur.

"I'll kiss you on the steps in front ot the Sacré Coeur," John had said. He knew how much Rosemary loved Paris – well, the idea of Paris actually – she had only been to France once – on a school trip – with just two days in the capital.
"How can you be so sure?" she asked. "Who knows if you will ever come back?"
"Come back to my place and I'll show you how sure I am ..."
The first thing she saw in his flat were the papers she had helped him fill in.
"All the boxes ticked," he laughed,  waving the top sheet in front of her face. "Including the one that says TEMPORARY RESIDENCE."
They made love, they went out clothes crumpled, hair dishevelled to the Wimpy bar round the corner. Then back for more bliss until dawn broke and she tore herself from his embrace, dressed in the kitchen, slipped out the back way. They had agreed there were to be no tearful goodbyes.

Memories of that night certainly sustained her through the next few years. Bolstered by his wonderful letters, chock full of poetry and declarations of abiding love.

Until he married someone else and became a fully sworn in citizen of the US of A.

But someone else kissed Rosemary on the steps of the Sacré Coeur. And that resulted in Ghee, a little sister for Billy, no more to be a one-parent child.

"Are you going to phone Billy, Mum, before I tuck you up in bed?"
Ghislaine was gently shaking her awake, paying off the taxi.

Later, safe in her own bed, Rosemary was rehearsing her speech for her next conversation with Pasquale.
"You get a different feeling about memories as you grow older," she would say. "Well, I have anyway. And mementos, kept preciously hidden in a box file for fifty years – I am thinking of sifting through them and throwing out most of them. Especially the love letters. I would not want my heirs finding them."

She was particularly proud of finding the French word for 'sifting'.


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