Cancer, Chemotherapy, Edinburgh, Facebook, Family, Health, Horror, Humor, Love, Marriage, Ovarian Cancer, Paclitaxel, Paraneoplastic Syndrome, Pentlands, Royal Mile, Spasticity, Students, Tumours, Vengeance
I was only an occasional reader of your website until recently, when my eye was caught by a reference to one Marcin Podkowinski. I was uncertain whether this was a common Polish name, but when I consequently read about the visitation of the black dog I was sure that your friend Marcin was mine also. I am convinced that the line about the rain wandering through the woods appertains to myself, and the following letter justifies this conviction.
In 2007 I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer – the tumours were malignant and on the rampage. Surgery claimed the wickets of most of them, but I required additional chemotherapy: a regime of paclitaxel, which left me without the energy to eat, or roll cigarettes, or endure even the briefest of conversations. Upon awakening every morning, the prospect of showering and dressing myself seemed as demanding as a twenty mile walk. Dulled by pain and fatigue, it was as if my true, real self had washed out like tides, and that I could only wait for it to roll back in again. A wheelchair was delivered to my cottage, but I spent most of my time in bed. My head felt empty, the usual discourse of my mind seemed to have receded, and the absence was filled by television, which shipped away the blank time like cartons on a conveyer belt.
As soon as I could cook for myself again, my husband left me, claiming that he was not strong enough to witness anything more of my decline. I was amused by my husband’s flight – it was an act of stunning and very characteristic bad taste – but I was also relieved that I could now care entirely for myself, without the distractions of him and our marriage. Although my husband had left me with the Pentland cottage which we had shared for over a quarter of a century, it was too much for me. I stacked my unwashed dishes around the kitchen, the colours of the rooms wilted in the dust, I pummelled the fire alarms into silence and the odour of cigarettes remained where I had smoked. I was desperate for company, however, and this led me to resume my English lessons. I have always loved young people – their beauty and energy are like music to me – and Marcin was amongst the students who returned to my cottage for tuition.
Marcin taught me how to use Facebook and I had soon accessed my husband’s profile. Over the successive months I witnessed my husband’s relationship with one of his students as it unfolded in the posted photograph albums. There were awkward first dates in various George Street drinking holes (my husband often misjudged the quality and suitability of clubs), a dirty weekend in Amsterdam, commuting to fuck her in her parents’ house during the Christmas holidays, and then their consequent decision to share a flat. There were photographs of an outing to Ikea to buy furniture, and a flat-warming party attended by a small, demoralised collection of my husband’s old teaching colleagues and his girlfriend’s girlfriends. The few, unhappy photographs of this occasion suggested that the old boys appreciated their ales in the kitchen, whilst the girls had a separate karaoke party in the living room.
My husband seemed to participate in this new relationship with the reluctance of a father who is hauled onstage during a pantomime and forced to sing a number. As I surveyed his awful progress, I could feel nothing but embarrassment on his behalf. I could imagine a time in the future when we would both return to these photographs, and he would wince and silently shake his head and I would cackle at his humiliation. There was one photograph of my husband and his girlfriend at a flat party – they were slopping beer out of a window on to the heads of unsuspecting pedestrians below, and then ducking back in again before they could be seen. In another, my husband – who has always sneered at the young and their antics – was now depicted climbing drunkenly up into David Hume’s lap, on the Royal Mile statue, and crowning the philosopher with a traffic cone. When I saw this, I screeched with laughter, and I immediately needed to show Marcin. He was playing on the games console in the living room, but as I approached I suddenly could not get a footing in the carpet, which loomed before me and then shot away in all directions like alarmed rabbits. I flapped an arm around a sofa and crashed to my knees.
Marcin yelped and stood up. “I can’t walk,” I barked, pulling the sofa towards me. “I can’t fucking walk!”
My immune system had advanced from weak, harmless punches at my cancer, to attacking everything indiscriminately, including my brain and my nervous system. The doctor told me that this freak response was termed paraneoplastic syndrome, and that I should anticipate dementia. Leaving the hospital that day, an odd thought struck me. I remembered attending a church fete when I was four years old and being presented with a helium balloon. My mother told me to hold on to this balloon tight, but of course it soon slipped out of my hands. I remembered standing in the playground, watching the balloon floating up into the depths of the sky, and it now seemed like my life and my future, and everything which I could have achieved, was this balloon.
The horizon seemed to be stacked with care homes and hospitals, but I was desperate to remain in my cottage. Marcin was a decent kid and I did not need to seduce him, or bribe him in any way, to incite his chivalry. His heart was not in this venture and he galloped under a spell of black despair, but he moved his things into the upper floor of my cottage and assumed various duties of care. We never discussed any sort of contract, but it must have been plain that he would get everything, including the cottage, after my death.
My speech was getting shoddy, spasticity was gesturing over my body like a hypnotist, and I had sharp, fierce sprays of epilepsy. And although I was no longer able to write, I was suddenly hankering to write to her. I wanted my spasticated body to burst into their apartment, splendid and unignorable, and to announce through triumphant bellows and war dances that I was his wife, and that I would never divorce him, and that we would be united for eternity. And I wanted to smash this little doll, I wanted her to scream her little skull out. Yet only Marcin could correspond with her and I was unwilling to make him understand. This sweet knight errant could not wield my avenging blade, he would disapprove and he would certainly engineer the abandonment of my vengeance. I ultimately needed to turn to another student and there was no alternative but Nerea, an ugly, ambitious little witch who had been eyeing me beadily for several months. She is assisting with the torturous composition of this very letter and she quite cheerfully records all of my insults about her. She is laughing at me now and threatening to send me to bed. In my vengeance, I sacrificed Marcin for Nerea, and Marcin seemed surprised but relieved when Nerea informed him of my decision.
I remember with perfect clarity an incident which occurred on the weekend before Marcin’s departure. It was a sunny day and I had been wheeled out into the little copse which lay beyond the garden of my cottage. A sudden wave of deep, clear air had signified the approach of rain, Marcin and I heard the low pattering in the copse ahead, and we then watched as a thick shower of rain rolled down the path towards us.
I struggled to insist that Marcin turn the chair around, so that we could make a run for the cottage.
I mouthed orders, gasping and spluttering.
“What?” Marcin asked sweetly.
I wanted to be furious but I could only laugh. And then I could not stop laughing. We were frozen in bright sunshine, watching the rain advancing down the path towards us. Marcin smirked. I watched helplessly as the rain tore up to my chair and I braced myself to be hit.
In a single, brisk movement, Marcin threw off his shirt and yelled. The rain ploughed straight into us, and I was transfixed with horror and delight within the deluge.
The best of luck in finding him.