"I'm sorry Mrs Melville . . ." her specialist's calculating voice practised in the delivery of bad news, "That pain in your shoulder and upper bicep is serious. . . "
She knew that the pain was 'different'. It was deep in the bone, not quelled with Deep Heat or Emu Oil, not crimped by Voltarin or Neurofen Plus. It was problematic, and finally she had it seen to. She harks back to her father, his surgery, his survival and eventual suffering at metastatic cancer long after he'd been 'cleared' of the original pariah. Being this way was humiliating, degrading, there's a better road to travel and she's itching to start.
"Wait a minute, let me interrupt you there . ." She says it quietly and uncharacteristically with almost a cool preparedness for the conversation that could follow. She knows that the constant pain in her arm isn't normal. At first she thought it a repercussion of a fall, then perhaps her attempt to tone using hand weights, but the pain at night had become unbearable and smiling through it during the day impossible. Nobody knew, she never told. Except for her specialist.
"What'll happen if I don't have surgery or chemo?"
His eyes gaze at the MRI chart on the wall, hers down towards her sun-browned shoulder; once admired, now never acknowledged. She rubs it gently to warm the increasing pain. The man in the white coat is taken aback. None of his patients have challenged the proposition of treatment.
"Mrs Melville... " She gives him leave to call her Wendy.
"Wendy . . . " his tone softens, "It'll spread. Through your bloodstream, into organs, lymph nodes and other bones and eventually . . . "
She doesn't need to hear the end. "Thank you." she cuts him short, "I'll handle this on my own."
She books her flight the next day. No cash just credit. Her life insurance and superannuation will cover it eventually. A doctor's report, a few emails, an EFT transfer of funds and within a week she's ready to roll.
But now? Why now? Life had been hard. Single parent, decades of loneliness and then falling in love with the wrong man. Difficulty with employment and money that slipped through her fingers. She was a sad survivor, a fact she only recognised once her home became an empty nest.
Meeting him was beyond wonderful and she didn't imagine the impact he would have on her, or her life. The fling was brief, he was much younger and no future in a sustained romance but the friendship became lasting, She remembers the touch of his skin, the smell of his hair, his smile . . they were the bonuses. The shape of his hands, the way his eyebrows raised when he was nervous. The realisation and sadness that she cared more for him than he for her, struck and compounded an already difficult decision.
The date not quite settled, she would meet him once more. She would travel, see the sights, taste the food, and soak in the exotic ambiance of a distant place, a world apart from her own banal existence. She'd sleep for the last time against his beautiful body, feel his warmth and breath, his hands upon her hips and breasts. She would touch his face, massage his shoulders. Then she'd drop her bombshell and hope he wouldn't shatter. She needs him, more than ever. Oh yes, she has it planned.
"I'm at the airport. Pick me up?"
He's stunned. She'd threatened to surprise him on a number of occasions but he never thought she'd follow through. She'd be afraid he wouldn't want her, pick her up, treat her the same - but he did.
She fobs his enquiries off with "Just needed to see you. Needed to fulfill the plans we made."
He thought he knew her, he thought she wasn't a mystery but this was one out of the box. He's pleased, the timing's right and he's ready to comply.
He notices a difference in her, a quiet resignation. She's less feisty and more morbid but puts on a brave face. He watches her exit the shower, towel wrapped, hair cascading damp around her shoulders. She's lost weight and despite her age, looks good, tanned from an Indian summer, and sweet-smelling from the shower. She's unaware of her voyeur and dries off her shoulder and arm with a wince. He says nothing.
She cooks him a meal that he wolfs without acknowledgement. He's never been strong on compliments and to him, food is fuel. To her, it has heart, is prepared with love and should be savoured. She's a little disappointed that he doesn't comment or seem to appreciate her efforts.
"Are we good?" The phrase a constant seeking of reassurance from her that usually elicits a "For fuck's sakes," but this time he's softer.
"Yes of course." He's a little surprised that she'd say it now between forkfuls of food, but acquiesces, "I wish you'd stop. We're good. We're fine. Everything's fine."
She begins to cry.
"Jesus, don't." He's losing patience, tears don't faze him but they make him feel awkward and he has to respond. He sees them as female manipulation until she speaks. This isn't just female melodramatics and he silently chastises himself for thinking as much. His expression doesn't change. He just stares and sits motionless. For the first time in a very long time, he has nothing to say and disengages his mouth and lets his brain process her words before speaking.
"I'm dying. Finally."
"Fuck. I told you to give up smoking" The attempt at levity designed to mask the lump rising in his throat.
"It's not smoking my darling, it's bone cancer. Hereditary I guess. My Nan had it."
"So what now?" There's little empathy in his voice.
"Now we do the trip, then you come with me to Switzerland. My treat."
He's heard this story before and put it down to amateur dramatics. In fact he's told her never to mention it again. All of a sudden it has a ring of morbid truth and he's not prepared for the truth. She usually protects him from it. The only time she lies is to make him feel good, afraid he'd react badly to the truth. This is new.
"You're not . ."
"I am . . "
"Do the kids know?
"NO and you're not to tell them. I've arranged it so they don't know. I've left a letter with my solicitor. I don't want them to know. You've kept our secrets safe before, you keep this one OK? Promise . . PROMISE . . .!"
He's torn. He knows he should tell her family, but she's his priority now. He'll be hated as an accomplice and he'll be hated as the harbinger of bad news. Tell or be silent. He's never had his loyalty tested this much. They'll sleep on it, maybe he can talk her round. Truth be told, she knows he'll try to work around her. He's a master manipulator himself and has been pushing her buttons for years but this time, she's hard-core, resolved and no charm or threat will sway her decision.
"Shit Wen' you put me in a hell of a position. It's selfish for a start!" The irony of the statement makes them both laugh, nervous, but laughter nonetheless.
"For once my sweet prince, this is not about you. It's about me and I want you with me when I do it."
He's shocked by her resolution. She's aware that what she's asking of him is impossible, unfair, but if anyone can do it. He can. He's cool. He says he doesn't care but he's loyal and true and her best friend.
She cries and he holds her. Kisses her neck and strokes her hair. He once dreamed that she'd died. Long before they'd become lovers and had been surprised by the level of emotion it had caused him but this? This was real, this wasn't good. This made him 'feel' and he wasn't adept at 'feeling'. It made him care and empathy had never been his strong point.
"Let's not talk about it now. We're on holiday," she wipes the mascara tinted tears from her cheek and begins to clear the plates. "We've got a trip to plan, things to see see and . . "
He pulls her close and the plates crash onto the tiles. Making no effort to clean the mess, he holds her tight and she shuts the fuck up. She just drowns in his embrace. This time, he's in no hurry to release her. The tell-tale, 'right time to back off' shoulder pats don't come. This time, she knows he'll follow through.
Continued in Part 2