Tuesday, May 7, 2013

On being still

I am sitting on a wooden chair on the stage of the children's library. Around me sits a bevy of ladies, heads down except for the occasional glance in my direction. I hear the soft and constant movements of their pencils, the burr of an eraser now and then.

I am completely still.

I will not move a muscle for over half an hour. To do so would shame my mother, who has offered me as the life model despite the scoffing of the others. A four-year-old, they believe, will not be able to sit still.

I will prove them wrong.

My mother's sketch will be the best. The most like me. I know this.


I have waited so long for this date with the machine. Now that I'm here, lying immobile under its blank robot gaze, the request to be completely still will take me to another time and place. The girls call out numbers to each other, move the machine, move the table. Occasionally one adjusts my body slightly.

"Don't help me," she says, as I try to move in the right direction.

"I'm used to helping," I say.

But I stop. I shut down my body. I disappear into my mind.


There are books everywhere, beautiful hardcover books with glorious coloured dust jackets calling me. They stand upright on the shelves, alluringly part-open, or lean gently sideways in their rows below. 

I would like to turn my head to better read the titles. I am, already, an avid reader. But I must be still. I concentrate on the books above the shelves, straining my eyes to understand the distant text.

I see one large, thin volume standing open under the window, its comic book pictures so familiar. BarBar the Elephant. The running writing mystifies me. It is a puzzle I haven't solved, the only series in the whole room whose text I can't translate into moving images in my head. 

I bring those books home over and over, trying to decode the mystery.


A vivid green laser beams stripes the ceiling, so straight that my eye wants to follow it, to find the bend where it hits the wall. But I must be still.

A red beam is on my body. I see it out of the corner of my eye; I want to see what it marks. This treatment is a mystery too. I want to understand. I want to ask questions, but the girls are still exchanging numbers as they move around me in some strange methodical dance.

I must not interrupt their train of thought. If they get this wrong, the rays may hit my heart and damage it. I know this much.

I must be still.

I close my eyes.


Out of the corner of my eye I can see my feet in their black patent leather shoes. I realise that if I wiggle my toes, nobody will see that I moved.

I wiggle them. The freedom seems enormous.


I wriggle my toes, angle my feet from side to side. Nobody tells me to stop.

The freedom seems enormous.

The top half of my body remains motionless, freezing in the climate-controlled air. I have disengaged from it. I barely acknowledge the ache in my left arm, already so abused by surgery and the side effects of the chemotherapy. Wrenched high above my head, holding onto the white handle with numb fingers, it seems no longer part of me.


Time ticks away. I can read the clock on the wall, but I don't know how long I have to sit here. 

Until the women are done, says my brain. Always logical. 

How long will that be? 

There is no signpost to tell me this. I turn my eyes to the side, trying to catch a glimpse of the closest lady's drawing. Am I complete yet? Am I done?

I can't see it.

Another mystery.

I can't ask. That would seem impatient, as though I couldn't do this difficult thing. I will not shame my mother. She believes in me.

Except for my waving toes, except for my breath moving in and out, I don't move a muscle


Three warning beeps as the women leave the room. I am alone.

The blank face of the machine stares down at me, a glass-fronted ring like a diving helmet. Inside, the Kraken waits. I will not know when it seizes me.

The diver starts to make strange noises. A click like a camera shutter. I see movement in the depths of its dark face.


More sounds, brief and incomprehensible; a whine, a whirr.

Many long silences.

I feel nothing. Surely I should notice something as the dangerous rays travel into my body? There should be some sign. Some warning. Is it happening in the long silences, or in the brief bursts of sound?

I can't understand this story at all. I am guessing from the pictures.

There is nobody to ask.

I close my eyes again.


I have been on this stage before, singing. I can see the elderly librarian's sweet, gentle face. I strive to remember her name, but it is gone somewhere, hidden in the mists of childhood.

She gave me a doll, a doll in a plastic bag. A prize for being brave enough to sing. I felt like a fraud. It was easy to sing to people. I'd done it all my life.

I sang "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean." My father played the piano. It was a concert. I have a photo.


One of the girls comes back into the room, and I wake with a mental start. She pulls my table away from underneath the robot, attaches some odd extension. Pushes me back beneath it.

"Nearly done," she says. "You're doing so well. You're staying really still."

I smile tentatively. It's almost as though I've cheated. I've always known how to be still.

I mustn't shame my mother.

I am still somewhere between waking and sleeping.

I realise that my armpit feels warm. Something invisible has happened to it.


The machine whirrs and whines and clicks and rotates. It moves under me. Silence.

Am I done?

More sounds.

Not done yet.

How can it see me through the table?


"All done," says the girl cheerily as she returns to the room. "That went so well. I'm so glad we waited that bit longer and got the plan right. It went perfectly."

I know that she is pleased partly because I have stayed so still. Perhaps some people find this hard, staying perfectly still.

"You can get up any time you like, but take it gently," says the girl. "You've been still a long time. It'll be shorter next time, only about ten minutes- we're all set up now, so we can get right into it."

I can barely move my left arm. I rub the life back into it before I try to sit up. My armpit still feels warm.


In the changing room I trim the spiny edges from the aloe vera leaf my Bear has given me. I am using the little folding sailor's knife he gave me, too. Tuffluff, it says. He is here, though not here.

My fingers are unusually clumsy, numb and tingling all at once from the taxotere. It is still tripping my body up, that poison. I miss my stroke, take two slices off the leaf instead of halving it neatly through the soft centre with a clean stroke.

I rub the cool jelly over my chest, the base of my neck. Pay special attention to my armpit. That's the danger, that's where the radiation can scar the lymph channels and close them, leaving the fluid in my arm no place to go.

I reach over to rub more jelly on my back, reach as far around as I can. Exit burns. I've read about these. Soothe the back as well as the front. A sunburned back has no appeal.

Two weeks, the girl said. Two weeks of treatment, before burns become a problem.

I am determined to stave them off. I will be as proactive now as I was still before.


Tamsin is waiting for me in reception. We embrace and walk out into the moving darkness.

1 comment:

  1. OMG... tears and empathy... I love you, Candy. You are an inspiration, pure and true.