A wave of sunlight trespasses into my darkened room as I lift the curtain above my bed.
I check my mobile. Five missed calls -- all from Josh – and five voice mails. Again, all from Josh.
Next to my bed, the dressing table looks like a voodoo altar: a line of mannequin heads cramped together echo in the mirror behind them - a mob of floating heads. Each one with its own unique personality to suit my never-ending pain fluctuations: the brightly coloured scarves, the turbans and the wigs.
My reflection in the mirror revolts me. I didn’t realise the hair would fall out so fast, leaving me exposed to the wintry cold draughts, to the stares of people in the street and to my own mortality.
If you could see me like this Josh, what would you think of me? Would you want to lie down next to me and make love to me, like you used to? I don’t think so. Not like this.
The land line rings and the answering machine starts. The line crackles for a moment and then there is silence until Josh’s voice breaks it. ‘Lizzie?’ His voice sounds tired, hurt, but still makes my body hum. ‘I know you’re there. I know you can hear me. … What’s wrong? Why aren’t you answering your phone? ... Why won’t you see me … Please … Call me …’ He breathes out loudly. I can feel his frustration through the line. ‘Shit,’ he says and hangs up.
The smell of toast filters through the door.
‘Breakfast is served, your majesty,’ Keira calls out.
Thank God for Keira. We share the flat. Sometimes she’s a little too perky for me, especially in the mornings, but she makes me laugh.
The table has been set with a proper tablecloth -- I didn’t even know we owned one -- it must be Keira’s. There are freshly-cut flowers in a vase in the middle of the table, two steaming cups of tea, and a stack of toast, slightly burnt, just the way I like them. I go over to her and give her a big hug. ‘Thanks.’
She looks a bit embarrassed. We don’t usually do ‘proper’ emotions. ‘Gosh Lizzie, it’s just toast,’ she says, ‘if I’d known you like it so much, I’d make it every day.’
‘Dufus,’ I say, throwing a scrunched up napkin at her. ‘What’s all this for, anyway?’
‘You’re going back to work, aren’t you?’ Keira says.
‘I didn’t realise you were so eager to get me out of the house,’ I say, making a face at her.
She grins at me.
‘So,’ Keira says, plastering her piece of toast with about half the contents of a jar of marmalade, ‘how do you feel about getting back into the rat race?’
‘Good,’ I say, and take a bite of my toast. ‘It’ll help keep my mind off … things.’
‘Talking about … things, before you go,’ she says and picks up a box from underneath her chair, ‘please take these.’ She plonks a shoe box in my lap. It’s full of sealed envelopes addressed to me -- all shapes, colours and sizes. She puts her hand up to stop me from protesting, as she knows I will. ‘I know you haven’t wanted to see him or talk to him or read his cards, but he’s sent you a ton of them. Why don’t you open some?’
I look down at the contents of the box. Full of love now, yes, but down the road… how long will it take for that love to be slowly undermined, displaced by pity?
When my mum was diagnosed with cancer, she withered away from us in front of our very eyes. We all knew she was suffering. Dad coped with it well at first and then, the pity gradually crept into his eyes and shadowed his soul, replacing his love and tenderness. It was then I swore that, if this disease ever gripped my body, I’d never let anyone go through it with me. I’d do it alone.
I hand the box of cards back to Keira. ‘Thanks, but no.’ I take a last quick gulp of tea and get up from the table, setting the mug in the sink as I go. ‘Thanks for breakfast. I’ll see you later on tonight?’
I pretend not to see the disappointed look in Keira’s eyes. ‘Sure,’ she replies.
The cold air pinches my cheeks as I walk towards the tube station. I touch the scarf on my head a hundred times to make sure it hasn’t slipped and I try to avoid people’s faces and even as I do, I quickly glance up to see if they notice anything unusual or freakish about me. And that’s when I see Josh’s face in the crowd ahead. Or is it just my imagination? There’s a pub opposite Tooting Bec Station and Josh is standing outside it. I lower my head towards my chest and quickly double back the way I came, hoping he hasn’t seen me. I daren’t look back in case he catches a glimpse. A warm hand on my arm startles me even as I was expecting it. I’m glad to feel it there and at the same time, I want to run. Josh is standing there in front of me but doesn’t say a word. I’d forgotten just how beautiful he is. In person, he is larger than life, with his chocolate-coloured hair brushing his shoulders and his eyes that hide nothing.
He takes a step toward me and stops. The voice that I hear doesn’t sound like his. ‘Why, Lizzie? What the hell’s going on?’ His voice brims with anger and I hear his breath, heavy and laboured. He comes closer. I look up at his face. I know every single one of the lines on it so well. The little crinkles around his eyes, the creases of his laugh lines, all the contours on his face that have been moulded by his emotions. His eyes search mine and then rest on the scarf that covers my bald head. I see the puzzled look on his face. He lifts his hand towards it and pulls the scarf off.
‘No! Don’t!’ I hear my voice, as if it belongs to someone else, but feel the scraping in my throat as I spit the words out.
His eyes open wide. ‘Why the hell didn’t you tell me?’
I grab the scarf back, cover my head with it and push my way past him towards the station.
My vision is blurred by my tears, distorting my reality but reflecting my soul and I see everything double, but it doesn’t stop me from running, running, running. Into the train station, through the turnstile, down the escalator, over the ‘Mind the Gap’ sign, through the train doors just as they close behind me.
He doesn’t make it in time and stands outside the train, watching it move away, his face twisted in frustration. He bangs his fist on the carriage as it pulls out of the station.
There’s an empty seat and I take it. Everybody on the train is reading. I wonder that they can’t hear my heart pounding. Can’t anybody see that my whole world has fallen apart? They keep on reading.
Lunch break thankfully comes sooner than I expected. I’m glad my work doesn’t involve me having to talk to too many people. I wouldn’t have been able to handle it too well today.
I grab a sandwich and a hot chocolate from the Pret a Manger around the corner from work and sit on one of the park benches. It’s still a glorious day and all I can think of is Josh.
My phone beeps. Text message from Josh: I love you. Why didn’t you tell me? We can get through this together.
No we can’t Josh, I think. I wish we could. My heart feels as if it’s going to explode into a million pieces, but I can’t do this to him. He’s such a romantic. How long did he really think we would have together? How long before our love would be replaced with degrading pity?
Someone sits beside me and I look up. At first, I don’t recognize the man with the shaved head.
‘Lizzie,’ says a gentle voice I recognize.
‘Josh! What have you done to your hair?’
‘You don’t have to be embarrassed, see?’ He smiles a sheepish smile at me and I feel the fury building up inside me like a river blocked by a dam.
‘What the hell are you talking about?’ I shout, ‘You haven’t got a bloody clue, do you?’
‘Get away from me! Don’t ever come near me again. Do you hear?’
People are staring at us.
‘We can get through this together,’ he says. ‘Marry me.’
‘No!’ I cry. ‘Don’t you see? We’d be starting our life on a compromise.’
‘What compromise?’ Josh says, grabbing my hands. ‘I love you, I know you love me, we can beat this.’
‘What if we can’t?’ I say softly, even though there’s nothing more I want. ‘No, Josh, I can’t, I’m sorry. It’s not fair -- to you, to me -- it’s just not fair.’ I wrench myself away from him. I need to get away otherwise I know I’ll yield.
I’m not listening. I’m crossing the street, trying to get as much distance between us as I can.
A screech of tyres sounds behind me and a bang.
A woman screams. ‘Oh my God, he’s been hit!’
Dread fills me and I turn around.
People are gathering around a man on the ground. I scan the people near the scene, hoping that Josh is one of them. I run as fast as I can, realising with each step that he is the one lying on the black, cold tarmac.
There’s blood everywhere. His head is in my lap. His head, with his lovely hair all shaved off – for me.
‘Don’t die on me Josh, please,’ I hear myself whispering, over and over again.
The screaming of an ambulance siren stops suddenly as the van jerks to a halt next to us and two paramedics quickly hoist Josh into the ambulance.
I hold onto his hand and don’t let it go. His eyes flutter open, disjointedly moving left and right, rest on mine for a few seconds and then close again.
Tears stream down my face. ‘I’m here, Josh, I’m here. I won’t ever leave you.’