|Every Third Thought
It happened very fast, without warning. One day everybody started dying. First it was
Janey Glazebrook, she woke on a Tuesday in a flood of blood before the school run: bowel
cancer. She simply couldnt believe it, shed had no inkling before except for
feeling tired, which, as we all said, lets face it, everybody does. This news, so
shocking, was met by talk of Philippa Meekin, Jasmines mother, who had that very
week had an operation to remove a brain tumour. Then Oliver Kitchen was diagnosed with a
primary liver tumour and Sadie went to pieces at the school gates, theyd got three
under nine and theyd just had the roof taken off for a loft conversion they really
couldnt afford so it was utter chaos there. Its like a plague, we all said, an
epidemic, a horrible sticky contagion.
Coincidence, said my husband Harry when I
told him the latest over dinner. These things come in waves, you know, like buses,
none for ages then three at the same time. Hes some ten years older than
mewell, fifteenso I tried to believe him, as if being older made him more of
an expert. I think he married me on the Picasso principlehowever old and ugly I get,
with any luck Ill still be less old and ugly than him. Hes very good at what
he does though I couldnt tell you what that is. What I do know is, it takes a lot
out of him.
But after all Harry was protected from the bad news by
office life. I couldnt even go to Waitrose without bumping into some fresh horror.
Id never had any interest in the subject before, no interest whatsoever. I tend not
to dwell on things. Doom and gloom were never my cup of tea, but now they seemed to lurk
round every corner.
Have you heard about Karen Pocock? said a
voice from the other side of the freezer cabinet as I reached in for a packet of organic
Dont tell me; I blurted, but there
was no stopping this bearer of bad news. Stephanie was to be in the thick of it for some
reason. She was always the first to know.
Anyway, this time it was Karen Pocock. Karen
Pocock? You must know Karen Pocock! She was on the PTA the year they raised enough for a
climbing frame, she goes round with that funny expression on her face like theres a
bad smell. Karen Pocock, it emerged, had just found out shed got breast
cancer. Six months chemotherapy ahead of her, no secondaries but two lymph glands
Yes, said Stephanie, nodding vigorously.
And youll never believe this but that makes five cases of breast cancer now in
Five, nodded Stephanie.
Including Karens next door neighbour, can you imagine, she went for tests last
week, nothing in her bones but the liver scan seems to show something.
Five is a lot, I marvelled. Do you
think it might be something environmental?
What, ley lines? said Stephanie. I
think not. Myself, I put it down to dairy. And the Pill. Cut out cheese and change to
condoms, thats what I say! She had a miscarriage too, and they say that ups
Must dash, I said, moving away as fast as
I could. See you at the book club. Ive got to get Tillie from tae kwon do in a
Harry and I have three girls: Chloe,
fourteenshes a worker, shes started revising for her GCSEs already, a
year in advance; Anna, shes eleven, nothing worries her, typical middle child, my
little couch potato; and Tillie, whos seven. Tillie was crazed on the Narnia books
about then, I associate that time with Mr Tumnus and Aslan the lion. I remember reading
aloud the chapter where Lucy and Susan watch over Aslans dead body, and there was a
bit where it said, You know that feeling when youve cried yourself to sleep? I can
still see Tillies puzzled round face on the pillow, the way she said, No, Mum,
I dont know that feeling. How I beamed with satisfaction at
thissmugness, you might call it. Ah well, pride goes before a fall.
Its an odd thing but when someones been
talking to you about breast cancer your own breasts start to fizz and tingle. I wanted to
cup mine in my hands right there at the checkout till, and I thought of my girls again.
Theres a lot of talk now about how it makes sense to go for pre-emptive surgery if
youve got a history of breast cancer in the family. You can have both breasts cut
off in case and the wounds covered with skin grafts from the back. That would be
jumping the gun a bit, Harry said when I mentioned this to him. Still, his
grandmother and one of his cousins died of breast cancer. And his aunt.
Adrenalin was in the air. The usual worry, the good
old money worry, the mortgage and so on, was pushed to the back in favour of this fertile
new health worry. My next door neighbour told me she now cut out and filed all newspaper
columns and magazine articles on cancerand there are an awful lot of them just
in case. It doesnt do to dwell on things, I said to her. You could
be run over by a bus tomorrow. But my heart wasnt in it; privately I found
myself thinking, that filing business sounds rather a good idea.
Hows Oliver? I asked Sadie Kitchen
the next time I saw her. We were crouched on little wooden chairs waiting in a queue at a
parents evening. It was somewhere in the autumn term, the start of the new school
Not good news, said Sadie with an unhappy
grin. We took him into UCH last night. They said. They said, he probably wont
last till November. Her eyes filled. She clenched her face in a horrible helpless
smile. I grimaced back and our brimming eyes swam at each other, uselessly.
They said his tumours the size of an
orange, she said, blowing her nose. Id just bought a net of oranges for
juicing and they went straight in the bin. Im not touching oranges again,
I do wish doctors would keep away from food when
theyre making their comparisons. A prostate gland is the size of a walnut, that sort
of thing. Funny what can put you off your food. Tillie wouldnt touch spaghetti after
Anna told her it was really dead worms. I used to be crazed on Topic, that chocolate bar
with the hazelnuts, I had one on the way back from school every afternoon for years; until
there was a court case where a woman bit into one and found a mouses skull. That
completely took the pleasure out of hazelnuts as far as I was concerned.
Somewhere around this time I had to go for a smear.
The practice nurse did it, and once shed finished digging around and had withdrawn
those metal salad servers, I realised how jittery Id been feeling.
That didnt hurt a bit, I said as I
got dressed. Thank you. Then I told her about the last few weeks, Death abroad
with its scythe, and the state of mind this produced in my circle. If I was looking for
reassurance, I was knocking at the wrong door.
Dont tell me, she said with feeling.
She glanced again at my notes. Ah, youre just the age that starts to happen.
Ive been there. It was after a party, two in the morning, I found a lump. I was
banging on the door first thing in the morning demanding surgery. Nurses are the worst
because they see it all the time.
Yes, I said. Of course.
Then suddenly it was happening to so many
people. All at once. Its quite a shock. I took out a really good life insurance
policy. It makes you decide to enjoy things.
We both looked glum, faced with deserts of vast
eternity and the wailing of children left behind.
The only thing you can do is put your affairs in
order, she said, washing her hands vigorously under the tap. Dont leave
too much of a mess.
But Im only thirty-six, I said. She
* * *
After that, for some reason everything I watched
on television, every conversation I had with anyone seemed to zoom in on you-know-what.
Even the children were interested.
How old do you want to be when you die?
asked Anna over dinner one night.
A hundred, said Chloe. And I want it
to happen when Im asleep.
A hundred and ten! said Tillie. But
I want to be awake to see what its like. As long as it doesnt hurt.
It must have been some time in October, Id made
a recipe from the paper for pumpkin soup butlike so many pumpkin recipesit was
disappointing, I could tell that from Harrys face. Hes very keen on healthy
food, and no animal fats because of a man at his office having had a heart attack, though
I sometimes sneak in a bit of butter for the flavour.
And would you want to be cremated or
buried? continued Anna.
Thats not very cheerful, darling, I
Whats cremated? asked Tillie.
Burnt in a fire, said Anna, so
theres nothing left except your ashes. Then they put them in a box and give it to
your husband to keep under the bed.
No, your husband scatters the ashes,
retard, said Chloe. Over the sea or from a private jet.
I dont want to be in the ground if
its like the garden, said Tillie. I hate worms. But Im scared of
Lets change the subject, I said.
Theres this cool new company, said
Chloe, looking at me from under her eyelashes. She has beautiful green eyes. She knew she
was winding me up. this company, which packs your ashes into a giant firework
and then you go up into the sky and give a lot of people pleasure at the same time.
Nang! said Anna. Im choosing
Thats enough, said Harry,
putting the paper down at last. Didnt you hear your mother?
The book group was no better. There was one meeting at Stephanies house, I remember,
which started with her description of Cheyne-Stokes respiration as she poured the wine.
It comes on just before the end, she
cried. Long gasps of not breathing at all then snorting back in there for a
None for me thanks, I said.
Ive put on weight over summer.
Ah but is it good fat or bad fat,
asked the woman who was holding out the bowl of nuts to me.
I dont know, I said. Its
about half a stone.
Susans married to an actuary, said
Stephanie proudly. We were saying the group needed new blood and shes
it! This introduction was met with a buzz of welcome and interest.
I used to think actuarial work sounded really
boring, said Susan modestly.
Not at all, we assured her; it was fascinating. She
came under a barrage of excited questions. All I can remember is that it pays to eat
sunflower seeds, and that the riskiest decade for tumours starts at the age of forty-five.
Alan always says that once you reach your
fifty-sixth birthday you can breathe again, she laughed, flowering in the sun of our
Well it certainly starts earlier than that round
here, cried Stephanie, filling her glass. Have you heard the news about Polly
Tulloch, girls? She went along to the doctor a bit embarrassed because her wee was looking
like beer, very dark, and her pooh had gone white. She paused. We waited.
Turns out she has pancreatic cancer, she concluded, turning down the corners
of her mouth like a Greek tragedy mask.
Whos Polly Tulloch? I murmured to
Juliet, sitting on the sofa beside me.
I think she does a yoga class with
Stephanie, she whispered back, and I was overtaken by a terrible urge to giggle. I
pretended to be coughing on some crisps.
Is it true what my doctor told me? Juliet
pestered the actuarys wife. That three out of four get it?
I heard two in three, added Stephanie.
Well, but lots of those are over ninety,
surely? said Sally. A hundred. Then its just a case of Anno
Did anyone read the book? asked Tricia,
Not to change the subject or anything.
Wuthering Heights, said Stephanie
witheringly. Didnt do a thing for me.
Oh no! cried Tricia. Didnt you
like Heathcliff? I thought Heathcliff was amazing.
I dont agree, said Stephanie.
Anyway, he dies, for no good reason I could see. What sort of heros that? More
But since shed already told us earlier that our
risk of breast cancer rose by 6% for every glass we drank, we all said no.
* * *
couldnt get it all out, said Philippa. Her face was steroid-puffy and
shed just been showing me the scar on her part-shaven scalp. Shed kept the
staples from her head and held them out to me in a little Murano glass dish.
Its very aggressive, apparently, she
said. Im trying to get Greg to see whats happening but hes finding
it really hard to, um, take it on board.
I sipped my coffee. I didnt say anything.
Its difficult for him, said Philippa.
But its even more difficult for you,
Oh I dont know, she said casually.
Im fed up with it. Theres been a flood of people I havent seen for
years wanting all the gory details. Stephanie popped by for coffee twice last week, which
is as good as having the plague cross painted on your door. I really dont feel up to
I was wondering whether Jasmine and the twins
would like an overnight on Friday, I said. That way they can come
trick-or-treating with Tillie.
Halloween, she shuddered, and
flashed me a ghastly grin.
All Saints, I said feebly.
I was in Mexico once for the Day of the
Dead, she said, closing her eyes. November the first. The family I was staying
with took me for a picnic to the graveyard where their relatives were buried and we sat
around on tombstones eating little iced sponge cakes baked in the shape of skulls. Keeping
them company. Everybody does it there, it had a real party atmosphere.
You look tired, I said. Why
dont you have a nap? Agnieskas got them till one, hasnt she? Hows
she working out?
I dont know, said Philippa.
There seems to be a lot of screaming and shouting but I cant... Weve not
been an au pair family before. I dont know how to do it. Still, Im sure
The doorbell rang. It was her next door neighbour with
a batch of flapjacks and a request to cut down some overhanging branches from
Philippas cherry tree.
Absolutely, said Philippa. Blocks
the light to your kitchen window as it is.
I must dash, I said. Got to collect
Tillie from her violin lesson.
I cant think what I want to be most,
said Tillie on the way home. A skellington. Or a witch. No I dont want to be a
witch, all the girls are being witches.
Jasmine and the twins are coming
trick-or-treating with us, I said. Thatll be nice, wont it. I bet
theyre witches, if they wear the same costumes as last year.
I might go as a grim reaper, said Tillie.
Not a grim reaper, darling, I
corrected her, turning into our road. The grim reaper.
After this, bad news flew in like iron filings to a magnet. One of Annas teachers
went off on compassionate leave when her beautiful student daughter was killed in a car
accident. The teenage son of Harrys secretary Paula dropped dead of a heart attack
during a Sunday morning football match. The woman in the dry cleaners told me about
her husbands seventy-year-old mother who had hanged herself from the banisters after
her daughters slow death from cancer.
It was unbearable. I felt wild with fury when I heard
such awful things. I thought, thats just not on. Its one thing if youve
had a good innings but Philippa hadnt had a good innings or anything like it,
and neither had most of these people. Wed been led up the garden path. Wed
been living in a fools paradise. I wanted to make a complaint, write a letter to the
manager in no uncertain terms.
Stephanie rang to let me know what shed chosen
for the next book club meeting. It was about a man who had been left paralysed by a stroke
but had managed to write his life story by blinking at an amanuensis.
What a survivor! said Stephanie
admiringly. Though of course he died. Now, are you going to Oliver Kitchens
funeral on Saturday?
I think we might be away, I lied. Harry
would be working at the weekend and I didnt want to take Tillie and Anna to a
funeral. Anyway, I dont like it when they say theyve just gone into the room
next door, I added. Or that theyre having a nice cup of tea with their
loved ones in heaven. Sorry, are you religious, Stephanie?
I wouldnt say I was overtly religious.
I mean, I dont feel the need to go to church every Sunday or anything like
that. There was a pause; then, I believe in something to rely on, she
said, rather stiffly.
Yes, that would be nice, I said.
I suppose I could have gone to the doctor for antidepressants or something to cheer me up,
but, well, it struck me that it wasnt me that things were the matter with. It
was all the rest of it, all these dreadful things happening all over the place. It was the
whole set-up. That was what was the matter. But I did go to the doctor about
something else, round about that time.
When I wake in the night, I told her,
I lie there and I can sometimes feel my heart miss a beat. Quite often.
Can you describe it a bit more? she asked,
rubbing her eyes and glancing at my notes up on the screen beside her. Its
like being in a lift and suddenly it plunges down. Its like falling down a lift
shaft, I mumbled. I almost added that it felt like a premonition, but stopped
That sounds perfectly normal, she smiled.
Nothing to worry about, it wont do any harm at all. Its called an extra
systole but really its nothing to worry about.
Oh good, I said. I thought I might
need a triple bypass or something.
Theres about as much chance of you needing
a triple bypass as of your being run over by a bus, she scoffed. You could try
cutting out coffee, see if that helps. Now, anything else?
I considered asking about my hot knees, a mysterious
new ailment which, according to the medical encyclopedia meant either Lyme Disease (though
Id been nowhere near deer) or chlamydia (which would be unlikely at this stage)
or my personal favourite rheumatoid arthritis. But I decided against.
No, Im fine, I said. Now that
I know its only an extra systole and Im not just slowly dying.
Oh were all doing that, she
laughed; and so we parted, on a gust of mutual hilarity.
Extra systole or not, I was still having trouble sleeping. That night I gave up and went
downstairs, turning on late-night television only to see real-life surgery and the
grey-pink gleam of entrails. When I flicked channels the latest brutal massacre leaped
onto the screen, as if there wasnt enough carnage around already from natural
causes. So I went up to bed again and lay there, full of chewed food, a great useless
carcass, a lump of flesh full of lumps of flesh. At five in the morning I woke up
shouting, Its a charnel house! What? said Harry blearily.
Im so sorry for everybody, I
Worse things happen at sea, grumbled
Go back to sleep.
Good cheer and spirits and a smiling face turned
to the sun all looked simply foolish, I decided the next day, sitting at the front of the
bus upstairs looking down over a crowded pavement. Childish. Like believing in fairies.
Look at all those people. Why werent they more worried? Particularly the old ones.
Why werent the old ones all tearing round in a panic? Instead they stood there
fussing over three pence change.
I was on my way to visit Harrys mother in the
Hawthorn Nursing Home, which is on a dual carriageway, making it impossible to park. Hence
the bus. When I got there she was sitting feeding peanuts into her cup of tea, traffic
whizzing past the window, her wizened silvery arms like birch bark.
Hello, Eunice, I said. Ive
brought you some some African violets.
Do you like beards on men? she replied.
No, I said. I think they hide double chins. There was a pause and
a cold old blue-eyed stare.
You know it all, dont you? she said,
and smiled in some version of triumph.
Then she started feeding peanuts into her tea again.
Whats the matter? she said when she saw me staring. Havent
you seen this done before?
Old people, I said to Harry in bed that night. How do they do it? They
just go on and on. Your mothers eighty-seven. And theres Sadies husband,
forty-one, he went running every morning before work and now hes dead.
Its just the roll of the dice, said
Harry, rolling over. Go to sleep.
But . . . I protested.
You could be run over by a bus, he
grunted. Why not worry about that.
Then, about a week later, I was run over by a bus.
Id just dropped Tillie off at school and I was on my way back home. Im glad
she wasnt in the car when it happened, it was quite enough of a shock for the girls
as it was. Anyway, I was pottering along at about twenty-five thinking about how I ought
to stop off at the garden centre for some hyacinth bulbs when there was an almighty bang
and the next thing I knew I was looking up into a nurses face and wondering why.
The bus driver had fallen asleep at the wheel; rather
extraordinary, that, at nine in the morning. It made the front page of the local paper.
The bus had been going downhill, picked up speed, shot a red light and hit my car
broadside on. Hed had a big night out, the driver, and he hadnt bothered going
to bed before starting his early morning shift.
The interesting thing is that, though it was rather
awful losing a leg like that, I was back to my old self otherwise. Some sort of cloud
lifted and I was out of the woods. Amazing, really. No more doom and gloom! I mean, of
course there were times when I felt sorry for myself, very sorry for myself, hobbling
round in rehab being one of them, but I was always able to snap out of it. It could have
been worse. As Harry says, all the important bits are still there.
Ive recovered my natural reluctance to dwell on
things, thank goodness. You hear people say, I think about death every day, as
if thats something to be proud of, but I cant help thinking, so what?
Were none of us going to get any further on that subject until its our turn. I
try not to dwell on how my friend Philippa died, because that still makes me cry. It
wasnt easy. It was no fun at all. But Karen Pocock got better; I recognised her name
when she joined my mosaic class, and now we get on like a house on fire.