Myelo (A Short Story)
Myelo was always there. Waiting patiently for his opportunity in the wings of our life. A distant shadow lurking in the background, we didn’t notice him at first. He was nobody to us; just a stranger and bystander. We didn’t see him watching us. We didn’t know he was planning every last detail of our suffering. Revelling in his sordid little plan as the ruin set in. It was never in our control.
A man stands alone, by the cast iron gates of this grand and imposing building. I feel like he is watching us. At least it seems he is focused upon us. I cannot be sure so I do not give it another thought or even mention it to John.
We walk through the doors of Bristol Street and the smell of old disinfectant hits. I feel sick with fear. An agonising tension is gripping my gut. Putting it down to nerves I take a long deep breath and continue walking. I must be strong. John holds my hand tightly. I can feel the heat of his body perspiring. He is worried. So am I. It is as though we know what is about to happen before time itself. God isn’t blessing us with the luxury of ignorance.
I notice the man again. He walks past. Head down, hands in the pockets of his long black overcoat, like some obscure character from a Dickensian novel. As he passes by, his eyes meet mine. They are large and brown and soulful. He stares at me intently, just for a second. Then he is gone.
We carry on walking. The voices and sounds of the hospital mutter on around us. Nurses talking, the wheels of trolleys being pushed along scrubbed floors, the clink of the vending machine, magazine pages turning, babies wailing. I feel overwhelmed, suffocated by the oppressive air. I struggle to catch my breath. John helps me to sit down and places a protective arm around me. He whispers words of comfort and love. Strokes my hair until the moment has passed. Somehow I have made this about me. I try my hardest to relax and pull myself together. We get up and carry on walking towards the ward.
Sitting, waiting patiently, in a room full of sick people, we do not belong to their elite group yet, but it feels like we are on the cusp of that reality. I look around the room, they have sallow skin, a yellow tinge to their eyes, a rigid boniness to their ailing faces. The nurse calls us in. Her expressionless face gives nothing away.
I don’t know what we expected that day. It is still hard to see it as it was or hear the words clearly. Things had been going so well, we were almost normal. But suddenly this whole situation was like something archaically cinematic, slow motion and black and white. I could see the consultant’s mouth moving – John’s shoulders slumped, bent over. He does that when he is concentrating. His face was disturbingly different. The colour had drained from it and he looked so dangerously fragile, like crystal with hairline cracks. What was he supposed to do? How do you react to something like that?
I am not like him, I could not contain my emotion. The tears streamed down my face and the sobs rose violently. I desperately wanted to hold it back and fight it. But the intensity of what I felt broke me. I held onto him, stroked his back and neck gently. With a touch only a lover can. He felt rigid and tense and cold. I could sense it starting – he was moving away from me.
I look up again. The doctor’s mouth is still moving. I try to focus on something else, gather my thoughts. The walls are pastel blue. The floor is freckled brown. The curtains hang limply like they have seen better days. There are posters that look old and weathered, curled at the corners from the artificial heat. I notice the clamminess of my palms and the film of sweat on my forehead. It is hot in here – of course it is, the patients are all hanging onto life by the edge of their fingernails. They are cocooned in here, protected from germs and disease and infection. This is our life now.
The man peers in through the glass panel of the door and stares at John. I look away, turn my attention to the conversation but his glare pulls me back. He doesn’t walk away but continues to stare. I figure he must be a trainee doctor gauging John’s reaction to his fate. It angers me that in the space of a minute, our family have become the experiment, the pitied freak show at the circus. I glare back at him and his eyes meet mine. The corners of his mouth twitch, he is grinning at me, mocking me. Then he is gone.
We both knew something was wrong. John had been feeling so tired for months. A man who ordinarily oozed energy, and had a lust for life was struggling to get out of bed in a morning. His bones were aching incessantly like the growing pains of an adolescent. He tried to play it down of course. But I knew that things were not right; he has the most strikingly beautiful blue eyes that sparkle as bright as polished marble. But when he is ill they simply lose their shine; they were washed out and faded.
Holding hands we wander out of the hospital but this thing, it already lingers between us. I can feel the emptiness in the gap that separates our arms and hands. We don’t speak. We just hold on like two lost children, swept along with the crowd as life cruelly passes us by in its innocence. He is there again. He wanders in front of us. Three steps ahead. Every so often he turns and stares at John, who is completely oblivious to his tormenting. He no longer hides or lingers or watches.
We sit outside for some time, on the cold, wooden bench just by the entrance, warmly dedicated to lost loved ones. We do not talk or discuss what we have just heard. Instead we just watch: men, women and children walking in for their many appointments, some are armed with sweets and fruit juice ready to visit their sick relatives, some are pushed in wheelchairs, some are wheeling their own drips shuffling outside in their slippers desperate for a well-earned cigarette. All of them have a story to tell, like us they have a fate to seal. For a moment on this warm spring day we could be any one of them. We are in their club now and it feels strangely normal.
After some time we walk back up to the ward, ready to settle John in for his treatment. The disease has progressed and an urgent bone marrow transplant is the only option left. It is risky but we have no choice. It could save him and there is a strong possibility that we can begin living our lives again. The other option is unthinkable. I leave John with the nurses. They flock around him like a murmuration of starlings, and he is swiftly swept along into the throbbing system of bloods and pressures and intrigued whisperings.
The gap between us widens.
I walk towards the hospital doors and turn around before I leave for one last look. I will be back in the morning but I need to remember this moment clearly. He is there again. Standing by the double doors to John’s ward, this time staring directly at me. I know exactly who and what he is now and I stare back. I reach into his eyes, desperately searching for some respite, some reprisal, a rescue. But this time the bastard grins wider, his mouth expressive and hopeful. Then with the thoughtless, selfish manner I have since come to accept, he walks away from me. Arrogantly striding back into the bowels of the hospital. And there is absolutely nothing I can do to stop him. He has a hold on us, a grip on our life. And he isn’t going to give up easily.
(*Myelo is derived from Myelofibrosis: a chronic blood cancer that affects the bone marrow)
This story was highly commended in the Local Writers Section of the Frome Festival Short Story Competition, July 2015.