Louise M. Hart
For the patients and staff on Melissa Ward
“The test results were conclusive, Mrs Green. There were no signs of cancer…just a nasty chest infection.” The doctor’s words echoed in Joan’s busy mind. She had desired a way out, but fate seemingly offered her no easy get out clause or escape from the drudgery of terminal reality. Determined to counteract her disappointment and elevate her mood, she visited a charity shop on her drive home and bought a second hand computer.
Heaving the outdated machine into her car boot, she sighed and regulated her breathing. Lighting a cigarette, she cursed her deceased Mother for giving her life and drove slowly home, anxious not to damage her precious cargo. Joan wondered how she could bribe her neighbour to assist her to manoeuvre the computer into her flat. After all, she was getting older and had been seriously unwell. She arrived at the small block of flats, where she resided and knocked her neighbour’s door.
Theo sat inside slobbering into a cheese sandwich, lost in the subtext of the latest episode of his favourite, daytime T.V. soap opera. “Please, give me a hand, Theo,” She pleaded through his letterbox, “I’ll give you a ciggie.”
“I’ve got some, Joan…Got paid today.” He replied.
“You know I haven’t been feeling too good, recently,” Joan continued.
“Your chest, isn’t it?” Theo opened the door
“The specialist reckons that I’ve got a few more months and then…” The lie slid from Joan’s lips so casually that she almost believed it to be true. Theo looked at her and his eyes suddenly deepened with fear and a shadowy black undercurrent. He placed his sandwich on a table.
“Course I’ll help you, Joanie.”
Joan could not abide Theo and his fetid cat, who regularly shit all over her prize winning petunias. But he was useful in a crisis and always dependable. So, after he had assembled her computer into a workable form, she sprayed the air with lavender. The sickly scent destroyed all odours of masculinity, enabling Joan to breathe freely, once more.
In contrast, Joan’s pet of choice was a dog. Buster was the latest in a long lineage of canine beauties she had owned. The big, black, bouncy burble of fun and slather jumped against her frail physique and head butted her chin in an attempt to yield a kiss. “Soppy bugger,” grinned Joan. He was as bad as the rest of them, the males of this world; he would do anything in exchange for a hearty meal and a tummy rub.
Joan spent most of the night playing with her new machine. She had passed a beginner’s computing course run by the local library and was competent at word processing, but had little experience of the internet. She managed to work out how to create a twitter account and the hours soon disappeared, as she set about reading tweets and following the accounts of people who interested her. Life suddenly seemed vastly more exciting. Joan’s head hit her pillow at about 3 a.m. and she lapsed into sleep.
Theo, also, went to bed at 3 o’clock. 7 or 8 cans of extra strong larger always ensured a peaceful sleep. It was now 2 weeks since his last recurring nightmare about exploding torsos and eating his own brain. Joan gave him the creeps, but even she did not deserve cancer.
Joan slept until 10 a.m. It was unusually decadent of her to rise after 6.30. She preferred to walk the dog, whilst the streets were quiet and only a stone’s throw from the mask of darkness. Eager to pound the pavements, Buster dropped his lead at his mistress’s feet and appealed to her sense of guilt. “Naughty Mummy,” Admitted Joan. She stumbled into her wellington boots and well-worn anorak and walked behind her companion, her head hung low. Buster bounced into the outside world, like a creature experiencing pleasure for the first time. Standing in his doorway, Theo called to his neighbour, “Joan, Joanie. Can I crash a cigarette, please?”
Joan audibly scoffed. Why could he not smoke his own cigarettes? Only yesterday, he had told her that he had been paid. She ignored his request and walked on. Theo watched Joan cross the road and his heart sank. Her jeans, worn a little too short, flapped around her skinny legs. She turned out her booted feet to Chaplinesque effect.
As she stumbled over the uneven pavement, Theo wondered if she would return in one fragile piece, or fall into the arms of death. He reached into his pocket, pulled out an unopened packet of cigarettes and sighed.
Joan’s mind throbbed with thoughts about her computer; they were fated to become good friends. Her body’s streamlined frame and the monitor’s liquid crystal features potentiated a possible symbiosis between human being and technological form. She smiled inside and the world adopted a reciprocal glow.
But, on returning home, her mood dipped. Theo stood at her garden gate, his sickly smile reflecting the incongruity of his social status. To heighten her despair, she noticed his cat reclining in her garden, as though she owned it as inherently as her own purrs.
“Alright, Joan?” Theo enquired. Suddenly, the cat jumped into the air in pursuit of a fly. She missed her target and the fly flew in Joan’s direction. In a flash, Joan grabbed the fly, clenching it in her arse tight fist. “Cool,” Smiled Theo. But, rather than crushing the lowly creature, Joan unclenched her fist and freed it. Perplexed, Theo took a step backwards and stammered, “Why..?”
“Flies have feelings, too,” said Joan, turning her back on him. She opened her house door. Buster peeped between her legs and rushed inside.
For an old dear, Joan was a fast learner. Over the next few days, she and the computer became intimately acquainted and eventually, submerged the blogosphere, where Joan learned about modern life and geek culture. She even attracted a twitter follower. She began to subscribe to blogs and receive daily emails, containing the latest posts by the bloggers she followed, including one written by a woman, whose partner had been diagnosed with dementia. Beneath the post, were countless comments written by empathic readers from all over the globe. People not only sympathised with the blogger, but embraced her as a legitimate, living voice. Joan had never been popular. She wished that she could make the world care.
The following day Joan travelled into town to roam local charity shops for books. She paused outside the Cancer Shop and looked through the window, entering cautiously and making her way to the self-help section. Picking up a book about Reiki, she pretended to read the back cover. A curious volunteer shop assistant walked towards her. “It’s supposed to be very good for stress…Reiki.” She said.
“But does it cure cancer?” Blurted Joan, her voice trembled with feigned emotion. The assistant approached the poor, thin, waif, who stood shaking in the shop. She wrapped her arms around Joan’s tiny shoulders and sank piteously beneath Joan’s ostensibly weighty tears. A tear for every miserable day Joan had spent as a prisoner of her own tainted skin and a hundred for the lies she was about to tell.
“It’s terminal. I will be dead by Christmas.”
The shop assistant’s eyes clouded and she said that she, too, had been affected by cancer. “Never give up. You hear so many miracle stories…people whose tumours have vanished, or who have lived for many years with a condition, diagnosed as terminal.” “There have been so many advances in the treatment of cancer…chin up.” She asked for Joan’s address and suggested that a visit from the local parish priest might help her. Joan wrote down her address as shakily as she could and thanked the woman.
“God bless,” Said Joan, as she left the shop. She was not a believer, but a visitor would help pass the day- even if she had to clean her flat, before he arrived.
In the evening, Joan googled, WordPress and found out how to create a blog. The process was much simpler than she had anticipated and within minutes she had become the owner of her own blog. She decided to call her blog, Diary of a Big C Sufferer. The name was both memorable and catchy. A name initiated by inspiration, a name derived from deceit. Sometimes, ends justify means.
Apart from writing an occasional letter, she had not written anything challenging or of great significance since her school days. But, that evening, she wrote as though her life depended on it. An endless conveyor belt of words arrived in her mind, as though they had been delivered by God’s unofficial postman. They thrust through the letterbox of her consciousness and were transformed into particles of cyberspace. When Joan clicked on, “Post,” both her words and her-self became real.
Linking her blog to her twitter account, she tweeted an array of twitter health experts links to her blog post. Exhausted, she turned off the computer and slept.
Later, after she had rested, Joan turned on the computer, again and was rewarded. It was an obliging piece of kit, a circuitous whore who satiated its mistress’s need for self-expression. The monitor displayed an inbox bursting with emails. Each one expressing either a, “like” from someone who had read her blog post or even better, a message detailing that a living human, person had chosen, of their own volition and because they enjoyed reading it, to subscribe to her blog. Joan was overjoyed.
Thenceforth, Joan wrote daily blog posts. The more she described the debilitating effects of her, “terminal illness,” the better she became. She, now, walked with her head held high. From his lounge window, Theo observed Joan with a mixture of puzzlement and admiration. She coped so well, if he had not known differently he would swear that she positively bloomed with health and vitality.
“There’s no point in being gloomy,” She said to Theo, one day. “I like to greet the world with a smile.” In the 5 years he had lived next door to Joan, he had seen her smile no more than twice before. Now, she stood before him grinning toothlessly from ear to ear. “The world doesn’t owe anyone a living.” She reached down to his cat and tenderly patted her head. Theo decided to visit the jobcentre on Monday.
When Diary of a Big C Sufferer exceeded 1000 views, Joan bought a pair of nearly new jeans. She felt quite a glamour puss, strutting around the neighbourhood, like a lascivious street walker, in search of rough trade and adorned in her figure accentuating product of charity shop magic. From his window, Theo noted with surprise that she had gained weight.
The following week Reverend Simon Peter Lockhart visited Joan. She was gardening. The act of manoeuvring slab stones was exhausting for everyone, but watching the self-proclaimed terminally ill cancer sufferer proved unbearably painful for him.
Sweat rolled down Joan’s face and formed damp patches on her back. The concerned man of God beckoned Joan to rest. She led him inside her flat. Even to her cynical ear, his words sounded almost sincere. He asked if she was receiving the support she deserved and said that she might be entitled to social security benefits and a MacMillan nurse’s support. “I value my independence,” Replied Joan. “When the time comes the necessary arrangements are in place.”
The lie had taken over Joan’s life and consciousness to the point, where she often needed to remind herself that she was not really terminally ill. She resented the lie for being essentially what it was, a lie. Her mortality had immortalised her, at least for the lifespan of the internet. Whenever she felt lost, all she had to do was Google, Diary of a Big C Sufferer.
“Do you have a faith?” Reverend Simon asked. Lying again, Joan looked him directly in the eye.
“I have always been very God fearing.”
“You are very welcome to join us on a Sunday. My 10 o’clock service is very popular.”
“Thank you, vicar.” Joan remained non-committal.
“Would you like us to pray for you? At every Sunday Worship, we reserve time to pray for parishioners in need.”
“That would be very kind of you.” Joan battled to conceal her excitement. Perhaps, she would go, after all.
“I shall call in to see you again, soon. In the meantime, if you need anything, you know where to find me.” Swaying his metaphorical cassock, the priest left. “No, don’t get up, I shall show myself out.” More bullshit and brimstone than fire and brimstone, Joan knew that most priests were kiddie fiddlers and only folk who pretended to believe in God went to church. Thus, on Sunday, Joan attended church for the first time.
Walking into the building, she felt nauseous. The congregation was a uniform as the rows of benches on which they sat. Joan crept up to a back bench and sat down awkwardly, her stomach churning. The woman sitting beside her turned and smiled sweetly. But, from somewhere behind her smile, she issued a threat. Joan reciprocated with a smile.
As Joan had anticipated, the service was as dull as holy ditch water, comprising an attention numbing array of monotonic hymns and climaxing in a sermon, to which nobody listened. However, when the priest announced that it was time to pray, she anticipated that he would mention her name and began to listen. He reeled off a list of names, before finally mentioning hers.
Upon hearing her name, vomit rose from the pit of her stomach. Clasping her hands to her mouth, she fled from the church, like Lucifer’s unclaimed bride. For gripped by a sudden and unexpected compulsion to escape, she felt as though she had supped with Satan.
The church service marked the beginning of a downturn in Joan’s fortune. Inspiration had turned its back and moved onto another consciousness. Her computer, now, lay abandoned on her desk, as virginally untouched as a newly manufactured pre-sale Apple model and unsullied by her mistress’s grubby hands. Joan turned on her television and became, once again, the person she had been before the P.C. took over her life.
Perched in an old wooden chair beside his front window, Theo wondered why a priest had recently visited Joan. It was now November and she had told him weeks ago that she would be dead in a few months.
3 days later, Joan made a final attempt to speak through technology, again. But, inspiration had been deleted from her consciousness, like a redundant computer file. And during her online absence, her blog site statistics had taken a dive. She had lost a handful of subscribers and the glory of an identity.
Joan’s fingers searched the computer keyboard for the most apposite and emotionally provocative words she could find. But, the words she accessed echoed in her mind as incomprehensibly as her own despair. She rapidly typed the following:
“If you remove a brick from your house, your house will fall.”
“MY CANCER IS CURED!”
Later that night, in awe of the depth of her profundity, Joan checked her site statistics and discovered that only 4 people had viewed her last post and none had commented. Did they not realise who she was? Could not they recognise genius? Was the world not happy that she was better? Morality had died with the creation of http://www.dot.com.
After experiencing a sleepless night, Joan looked out of her kitchen window and saw Theo’s cat wrestling a mouse. Prancing in her garden, with carefree ease and unrepentant pleasure, the cat threw its pitiful captive into the air like a lifeless toy. Joan thought mice had feelings, too. So had she.
Enraged, she headed for the local supermarket, purchasing 2 pints of milk, 100 cigarettes and some rodent poison. A few hours later, Theo’s cat died in his arms. She had become suddenly very sick. Theo wished that he had been taken instead. Without his friend, life seemed pointless. He had no reason to get out of bed, nobody to feed and for whom to care, no one to love and cuddle. A constant flow of tears merged into oceans of pain, he cried in vain.
Shuffling into the kitchen in search of a bottle of vodka, he recalled how he and friends had once ridiculed other psychiatric patients, whose gaits betrayed their mentally ill status. Now, he had no friends, but he did have a, “Walsgrave shuffle,” the eponymous walk of a Walsgrave Psychiatric Hospital patient, where he had misspent his degraded youth.
Theo wondered if his cat now resided in feline heaven or a more inclusive afterlife with his parents and Jim Morrison. Unusually sentimental, he wanted to believe that they were all together, accompanying frolicking angels and dead rock stars above a straightjacket of sky. He was not afraid of death. It was life that killed the spirit and damaged the human mind. The pills his doctor prescribed him did not make existence more bearable, but they did stop him shouting about it.
Nobody was reading Joan’s blog, her life work and seminal portrait of existence with a terminal illness. She concluded that life was the real disease. Cancer had been her cure. She telephoned the Department of Work and Pensions and reported Theo for benefit fraud. He could function as well as anybody else, she claimed. He was bloody idle. People like him gave the genuinely sick a bad name.
Next door, Theo who had not cleaned his flat for 5 years or bathed for 3 weeks, cried into a can of larger and tried not to think about cutting his arms. It had been 10 days since he last gashed his broken body and soothed his beautiful mind.
On Christmas Eve, Joan wrote a blog post:
My name is Joan and I think I am going to kill myself. I live at 4 Upper Hill, Stoke. If there is anyone out there, please call by.
Joan pressed, “Post,” and, momentarily paused. In serenity, she waited for 2 hours but no one came. She washed down her last supper with a bottle of sherry and a few thousand milligrams of paracetamol.
A week later, the police broke into Joan’s flat. They discovered shredded clothing, gorged human remains and a dog with a bulging, full stomach. A concerned neighbour had phoned them. He claimed that Joan was terminally ill and that he had not been seen her for 2 weeks. Buster was ecstatic to be rescued, but could not understand where Mummy was.
Theo cried, when he was told of Joan’s passing. “That cancer…” He said, “its pure evil.” He took Buster’s lead and felt thankful to have found something to love, again.