Read this short story from Sheffield GP Dr Jo Cannon’s book entitled ‘Insignificant Gestures’.
The doctor is uneasy. I make people feel like that. Before they recognise and disguise it, I sense the first flicker of disquiet.
‘What made you decide to have the test now?’ she asks.
‘I got the letter and read the leaflet. It seems sensible. Cancer prevention and all that,’ I say.
‘But you’ve not had one before and you’re… ‘ She studies the computer screen. ‘Nearly sixty.’
‘I was never called in before.’
She seems to have difficulty meeting my eyes. ‘The computer must have generated the letter when you joined the list. Do you know what the test involves?’
She stalls, eyeing my wrists and hands. ‘We don’t have your old records yet. Is there anything I need to know? Your medical history?’
I smile. ‘No. With all due respect, I tend to avoid doctors.’
She becomes brisk.
‘OK, if you’re sure. Would you like to hop up on the couch? Slip your things off. You can cover yourself with the sheet.’
I obey quietly. Time decelerates. As if dream falling, the inevitable impact approaches slowly. I hear water splash as the doctor washes her hands; the clink of metal; paper rip as she opens a packet. I tell myself it’s normal, an ordinary test that all women have, like a blood pressure check.
The doctor appears between the curtains around the couch, gazing at the wall behind me. She moves the sheet that covers my thighs, hesitates, and then replaces it carefully, smoothing out the creases.
She says, ‘Joy, not all women need this test. Not everyone. You know that, don’t you?’
I wait for a hint of derision or pity, but there’s only trained, cautious neutrality.
‘If you make another appointment, we can talk about this. Maybe your old notes will have arrived by then.’
I won’t be around that long.
My job allows me to keep moving. Every six months or so I find another furnished room or flat. In this city it’s easy – you move a mile, even a few streets, and disappear. By the time people realise, draw conclusions and make judgements, I’ve gone. In each new place I take the mirrors down. Working from home, I write advertising copy for laboratory equipment and translate it into French. Although my scientific vocabulary is extensive, I’ve never been to France and would struggle to hold a conversation. I haven’t met my employer, we communicate by e-mail, but the cheque paid into my account every month is ample.
The trudge of my work suits me. Days pass as hunched over my laptop, I strive for the correct word or phrase. Sometimes, surfacing, I find myself singing. Although the timbre is not to my liking, my voice is good. My mother sang. So I’m not unhappy. I know which streets and parks to avoid and never leave home after dark. A solitary life, but I’m used to it. I don’t expect to have friends. My dealings with others are skewed and ambiguous, for who would be seen with me?
Late at night, after a productive day, I fetch the full length mirror from behind the wardrobe and prop it against the wall. From under the bed I take clothes still in plastic bags from New Look or Next. After lighting candles I dress carefully in underwear and slip. I like dresses that shimmer and cling – too youthful of course, but I don’t wear them outside. In tights and heels I’m a little old fashioned. I observe myself in the mirror, not closely. I admire details: a perfect buckle, the gleam of a bangle in the candle light. Like any woman my age, it’s best to focus on the positive. In the day I wear trousers, and apply lipstick without looking. When I’m done I undress, fold everything, replace the mirror behind the wardrobe and if I’m lucky, sleep.
When I came to this city I was young, still connected to the life pulsing through me. I took risks; in bars and clubs I’d flick open like a fan. I learned fast: a broken tooth, a damaged ear – it could have been worse. Now I’m older it’s bearable. I’ve grown used to myself. The yearning and desperation have eased. The monotonous thoughts that crank round and around until I’d rather die than think them again, consume me less. My dreams are more orderly. But some days still I wake into a furnace. I need to be seen; if I try hard enough, walk correctly and wear the right clothes, surely someone will witness. If not, my smelting is endless.
This morning is one of those days. Too distracted to work, I find myself in New Look. The clothes are for teenagers, but older women shop there too. The tacky, glittery glamour excites me. There’s a new girl at the checkout. She glances up as I reach the front of the queue; her eyelids flicker slightly, but she smiles.
‘Do you think this scarf works with my dress?’ I ask.
I hear my voice pleading. An onlooker inside me contracts like a snail.
She regards me thoughtfully, then picks up the scarf and runs it though her fingers. Her face remains open. The queue stirs, but she doesn’t look over my shoulder to catch someone’s eye as they usually do.
‘Yes, they match. It’s a lovely colour,’ she says.
My legs are weak with gratitude and relief. I walk to the door, alert to the faintest snigger behind me, but there’s none.
On a bench outside New Look I examine my purchase. I wind the scarf, a delicate spill of scarlet, through broad fingers which even with manicured painted nails resemble my father’s. I consider the girl at the checkout. My mother, I imagine, might have looked like her. I don’t have a photograph. She left a note for my father, not me, the day I returned from school to find him home early, waiting.
He said, ‘She’s gone to France with her fancy man. She won’t be back.’
For years I wondered if he murdered her. I imagined France like heaven. Surely she’d have written if she could. I was her only child. She protected me from my father’s moods and disappointment – how could she abandon me? I spent the rest of my childhood hiding from him, and grew inward and strange. Certain thoughts, like moths, began to lay the eggs that would hatch and chew my mind flimsy as lace. My mother had guessed. When she caught me at her mirror applying lipstick I was ten. She laughed and hugged me tight. But she was pretending; soon after, she went away. A red scarf and gold bangle, her clear voice singing, are all I remember now.
Searching through my handbag for the receipt I find the cervical screening leaflet and read it again. Suddenly I’m laughing nervously. Women my age are beleaguered: bladder weakness, cancer, prolapsing parts – I’m aghast. Recalling the ominous clinking behind the doctor’s curtain, the glimpse of toothed metal, I feel a faint, unprecedented affection for the shaved, redundant rod of flesh that every morning I tape flat against my thigh. With no potential to bleed or drop out, it can’t harm anyone now.
I return to the check-out. The girl is still there, but the queue has gone.
‘Can I bring this back? It’s too young for me really,’ I say.
She smiles and shrugs, running my debit card though the machine.
I say, ‘I went for a smear test yesterday. The doctor couldn’t do it.’
For a moment she’s perplexed, then catches my mood and laughs with me, her hand over her mouth.
‘What did he say?’ Her tone is gossipy, fascinated.
‘She said, not everybody needs one.’
Her laughter floats me out of the shop and back to my flat. As I open the door I start to sing, proud of my baritone.
Dr Jo Cannon is a GP in Sheffield. You can visit her website at www.jocannon.co.uk.
Insignificant Gestures – a collection of short stories ‘Insignificant Gestures’
PulseToday will be publishing an extract from ‘Insignificant Gestures’ shortly.