The surgeon hands me a lever arch file. An ugly great thing. Baby-pink vinyl.
“This is your new life. You’ll find everything you need in here—”
“A clean bill of health?” I drop the file back on his desk.
He raises an eyebrow. Turns to the calendar pages where I am to keep track of all my appointments: surgery; chemo; radiation; counselling sessions.
“Here’s a list of groups you can join. You’ll make new friends in no time.”
“What’s wrong with my old friends?” I know what’s wrong with them, but that isn’t any of his business.
“Fellow cancer sufferers and survivors bring a different perspective—”
“Is there a prize for whoever lives longest?”
That eyebrow twitch again. “You’ll be meeting your team next week.”
I loath my team at work. Why on earth would I want another?
“Your team will be responsible for your care. Now, let’s discuss your surgery.”
The thought of those chubby fingers with their chewed nails hovering over my bare breast with a scalpel turns my stomach. I stub my toe on a chair in my haste to get out of his office. I try to slam the door behind me but it has one of those infernal closers, all hushed and polite.
The word sends a shiver of recognition down my spine. But I scoff. Tug at a peroxided strand of hair. “Do I look Pakistani to you?”
I race out of the hospital into the sunshine. The chugging roar of an old double-decker accelerates away from the bus stop in a cloud of diesel. I cough and clutch the lever arch file to my chest—why the hell did I pick it up? If there’s a bin on the way to my car, it’s getting chucked.
I’m being jostled on all sides by people rushing past. Why is everyone so damn happy? Up ahead, a homeless man in a brown suit is selling The Big Issue with a cheerful cry. Normally I’d buy a copy.
The door to my dilapidated Golf GTI sticks as I try to yank it open. I kick its go-faster stripes of rust, call it a “has-been” and turn the key in the ignition. For once it starts first go.
I roll down the windows and take off the jumper I bought yesterday in a charity shop. It perfectly matches the orange bedspread that The Dragon—my adoptive mother—declared a “revolting colour” as she picked it up off my bedsit’s dusty floor at the weekend. Under the building society’s fluorescent lights this morning, the jumper’s bobbles and stains were glaringly obvious. My boss did a double take, but said nothing. Silly, bald coot.
I can’t face going back to work even though I promised to. Maybe a quick BLT at Pret followed by an hour or three in Waterstones’s? I’m convinced somewhere in that world of books my future’s waiting. It’s calling to me like—
Some idiot is honking because he wants my parking space. I pull out in more manoeuvres than necessary, give him the finger and drive back to Clapham North.
I hate how my flat echoes. I wish I had a cat. A black one would be nice. Someone to greet me and listen to my troubles. Someone to snuggle. Perhaps I should go to Battersea Dogs and Cats Home later to see about adopting—But what if I die? Who will look after her then? The Dragon is a cat person, but I wouldn’t wish that woman on my worst enemy.
I put the kettle on and search for the packet of chocolate Hobnobs amongst the sofa cushions. It’s empty apart from a few stale crumbs.
The milk is on the turn. I close the fridge and stare at the three faded postcards of Devon on its door. A church steeple, thatched cottages with dry stone walls. An estuary at ebb tide. A rowboat overturned on a pebbled beach. I don’t remember much about my real mum—I was five when she died—but I can still hear her voice, husky with nicotine, promising to take me to Bideford. We’d swim in the cold sea, stretch out on pebbles warmed by the sun, then have Devon cream tea. Fish and chips in newspaper with lots of vinegar for supper. Rock candy too.
I throw my toothbrush, a few t-shirts, knickers and unpaired socks into my rucksack, then carefully place the pillowcase containing Mum’s turquoise silk scarf on top. I only peek at it occasionally. I don’t want it to lose its smell, that faint hint of her perfume. I hurry out of the flat without double-locking the door.
Two hours later, Stonehenge on the horizon of the A303 is a shock and I almost collide with an oncoming lorry. I feel inexplicably drawn to the prehistoric site. I want to stop and have a walk around—but I must reach North Devon before dark. The Dragon would approve: for once I’m being practical and sensible. It irritates me.
Another half hour of rolling countryside and I realise something odd: earlier in London, it was like looking out at the world from inside a glass bell jar. Ever since passing the ring of standing stones, I feel grounded again. Part of things. Almost calm. I begin to hum.
The suit of armour in the hallway sums up the B&B’s austerity, but it’s cheap and I’m too exhausted to care. I collapse onto the single bed and the springs twang. I don’t have the strength to take my boots off, let alone my clothes.
I wake to moonlight streaming in and get up to close the curtains. In the cobbled street below, an old woman stands by a lamppost looking up at my window. She beckons.
Brass rings judder on the pole as I yank the curtains shut. I pull the eiderdown over me and go back to sleep.
“It’s gone half-past nine!” The landlady is banging on my door. “Your breakfast’s getting cold.”
I mumble “Coming,” sit up and blink in the morning sun. Didn’t I close the curtains during the night?
In the empty dining room, I push two large, greasy sausages aside on the chipped plate and dip cold toast into the runny egg. I hate sausages. They remind me of the day Mum bought them for our supper. She put them in the shopping basket and collapsed like a rag doll. The butcher rushed around the counter to help, then pressed me against his blood-smeared apron. I kicked and screamed but he held me fast so I couldn’t see Mum’s lifeless body. The smell of raw meat still makes me retch.
I spend the day on Biddeford’s pebbled seashore in the greying light. It’s too cold to swim so I wander around souvenir shops and consider buying sea glass. A flyer in a window advertising for a farm hand—room and board included, no experience required—intrigues me. I like the idea of living in muddy wellies and reeking of cow dung. Trading my desk in a windowless open-plan office for fresh air and—
No, I’m stalling again. It’s time to take that horrid lever arch file out of the boot and get to grips with reality—although that’s never been my strongpoint, as The Dragon would testify.
Halfway to the car, the bowed window of a tearoom reminds me of Mum’s promise. I peer in at tourists crowded around tables set with pink tablecloths and old bone china.
A tinkling brass bell greets me as I open the door then a mother carrying a wailing toddler rushes past, almost knocking me over. I settle myself at a corner table in the back and order two cream teas.
“Is someone joining you?” The owner has bright red hair and a floral pinny.
“They’re both for me.”
I take out my mobile, thumb poised over the power button. It’s been off since I entered the surgeon’s office yesterday.
“Those things never work in here,” a croaky voice says from the next table.
I’m not about to start chitchatting with some scary old woman who looks as if she could do with a jolly good wash.
“You should wear your mum’s scarf.”
I pretend not to have heard. Hopefully she can’t see the goosebumps on my forearms.
“She wore it tied around her head and neck like Grace Kelly, didn’t she? It’s turquoise with embroidered silver flowers.”
I stare at the woman in disbelief then check my rucksack to make sure the zip’s still closed.
“Your father gave it to her.”
I only knew Dad through Mum’s bedtime stories. He wore long coats of silk and shoes with upturned toes and spoke with a lilting accent. He was from an exotic land far, far away. A prince, I imagined.
“The scarf was his parting gift,” the old woman says, “before he went home to Pakistan.”
The word sends a shiver of recognition down my spine. But I scoff. Tug at a peroxided strand of hair. “Do I look Pakistani to you?”
The woman gets up slowly, hobbles to my table and sits down. She smells of fish and chips and lavender water.
I am aware of the floral pinny at my side and a laden tray. “Is Bertha joining you then?”
“The second cream tea’s for the young lady’s mother, not me.”
“Right you are,” the owner raises her eyes skywards, grins at me and mouths “batty” as she lays china teapots, scones, strawberry jam and clotted cream.
“If you show me her scarf,” Bertha’s voice is mellifluous, “I can tell you more about your mum.”
I remove the frayed pillowcase slowly from my rucksack and wonder if Bertha has cast some kind of spell on me.
Gnarled fingers reach for the transparent silk, her nails brown as if she’s in the habit of digging them into the soil. “Your parents loved each other very much.” A thread catches on a ragged nail and I wince. “But he was promised to another. An arranged marriage joining two powerful, wealthy families. A loveless marriage—except for the sons.”
“I have brothers?” I feel a surge of something. Hope?
“Your blood family isn’t always your true family.”
“Well, my adoptive family sure aren’t!”
Bertha nods. “They’re decent people. But they’re realists—not away with the fairies like you.”
“The nuns at school called me a heathen.”
“Good for you! Now, tuck in,” she points to the spread. “And tell me what makes you happy.”
“Drinking too much at my local,” I say with my mouth full of scone, “and eyeing beautiful women over the rim of my cider.” I’m hoping to shock Bertha, but fail.
“You go home with men instead,” she chortles. “What else makes you happy?”
“Movies.” Kate Winslet in Ammonite is my alter-ego. “Spending hours in bookshops reading.”
Bertha asks the owner for a pad and pencil. She scribbles, tears off a sheet and gives it to me like a doctor handing over a prescription: “To help with your quest to become the woman you can be—”
“What’s wrong with the woman I am?”
“Read Sharon Blackie’s If Women Rose Rooted and Maureen Murdock’s The Heroine’s Journey. For this,” she taps the side of her right breast, “Anita Moorjani’s Dying to be Me will give you a different perspective on cancer.”
I stare into Bertha’s eyes, black as old oil. My hand shakes as I pour and tea slops into my saucer.
“Doctors,” Bertha waves her hand dismissively, “take away your power. Convince you that you’re fighting a war against your own body. Ridiculous notion! They cut out the symptom but never address the root cause. And they terrify the life out of you.”
I remember fear creeping into me like a sudden frost in the surgeon’s office. I slice into another scone, its centre still warm from the oven.
“There are many ways to help the body to heal naturally,” Bertha hands me the jam.
“Herbs and potions?”
“Amongst other things.”
“Hocus-pocus!” I’ve spent enough time in Waterstones’s Mind, Body and Spirit section to know that it isn’t, but I’m not about to let on to Bertha.
“That lump’s your body’s way of warning you that you’re off course. You’re not living your soul’s purpose.”
I almost choke on a large gulp of tea. “And what’s that when it’s at home?” I reach for another scone.
Bertha’s hand intercepts mine, her grip surprisingly strong. She prises my fingers open, studies my palm and smiles. Her index finger traces a line. It tickles, sending a little jolt through me. I pull away.
“You don’t act on your intuition enough. You’re living the life you think you’re supposed to. But it’s making you miserable. You need to laugh more. Find people and situations that make your heart sing.”
“And hey presto, I’ll be cured?”
“Healing isn’t like instant coffee. It’s a journey that takes time.”
“And what if I don’t have time?” I mutter.
“I’m looking for someone to help on my farm. Three wholesome meals a day and a room overlooking the sea. You’ll sleep like a baby. Come back tomorrow if you’re interested. I’m here every afternoon for tea.” Bertha picks up Mum’s scarf, arranges it carefully around my neck. “It might catch somebody’s eye tonight.” She pats my shoulder. Another tiny jolt like static electricity.
She heads slowly for the door, turns and raises a hand. It’s the old woman from my dream, I realise.
The pub is noisy and crowded and I’m tempted to down my pint and leave with my packet of cheese and onion crisps.
A young woman in a figure-hugging black jumpsuit catches my eye. She’s smiling at me.
I mouth, “Hi.”
She makes her way over with feline grace, manoeuvring past arms waving drinks and several large handbags.
“Your dupatta’s gorgeous,” she points at my neck, her chestnut hair falling into green eyes.
I take off the scarf and show it to her. “It was my mum’s.”
She drapes it around her slender neck, examines the embroidery closely. “I’m studying fashion design. I’m dying to visit Pakistan to see all their amazing fabrics.”
“Can I buy you a drink?” I ask.
“I’d love a G & T.”
When I return, she’s sitting with her elbows on the table, absentmindedly caressing her cheek with the dupatta. “It’s like a feather. Here, feel,” she reaches over and brushes my cheek with its tip. I close my eyes and let myself be carried by the sensation.
An hour later, Nallie and I leave the pub and head for the fish and chip shop. As we queue, she winds the dupatta around my neck. It smells of her perfume now, light and citrus. “Let’s take our dinner back to my flat. Maybe watch a movie? I’ve been longing to see Ammonite.”
For the first time since Mum died, I want to live. Really live.
In London, Paula Robinson was an interiors columnist for The Sunday Times, The Sunday Telegraph and Move Or Improve? magazine. Ebury Publishing (Penguin Random House) commissioned her to write The Room Planner: 100 Practical Plans For Your Home, which was translated into French and Russian. She is working on her second illustrated interiors book, The Intuitive Home. Paula is an alumna of Curtis Brown Creative’s Three-Month Novel-Writing Course; her work has appeared in The Aleph Review (print and digital).
Noormah Jamal is a Brooklyn/Peshawar based Visual Artist. She graduated with honours from the National College of Arts in 2016, majoring in Mughal miniature painting. Having grown up in many cities in Pakistan, her experiences of each are reflected in her practice. Her self-identity is deeply rooted in her Pukhtoon Heritage. Since graduating, she has had numerous shows in Pakistan, Dubai, China and Switzerland. Some of the shows include You and I at T2F Karachi; Tarhun The Beautiful the Bizarre at O Art Space, Lahore; Teller of Tales at Taseer Art Gallery, Lahore; Ustaad Shahgird exhibited at PNCA Islamabad and XIANG Polytechnic University, China; Space in Time at Reitberg Museum, Switzerland/Canvas Gallery Karachi and Drun; and The Insider, the Outsider at Sanat Initiative, Karachi. Her work has also appeared in various magazines and publications. She was an artist in residence at VASL Karachi, for the Taaza Tareen 2019 cycle, and was awarded the Imran Mir Art Prize for the most promising artist 2019. She is currently doing her MFA from Pratt Institute.