Issue 53: May - June 2006 

| author bio

Every Third Thought
Helen Simpson

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 couldn’t believe it, she’d had no inkling before except for feeling tired, which, as we all said, let’s face it, everybody does. This news, so shocking, was met by talk of Philippa Meekin, Jasmine’s 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, they’d got three under nine and they’d just had the roof taken off for a loft conversion they really couldn’t afford so it was utter chaos there. It’s 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.’ He’s some ten years older than me—well, fifteen—so I tried to believe him, as if being older made him more of an expert. I think he married me on the Picasso principle—however old and ugly I get, with any luck I’ll still be less old and ugly than him. He’s very good at what he does though I couldn’t 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 couldn’t even go to Waitrose without bumping into some fresh horror. I’d 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 peas.
      ‘Don’t 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 there’s a bad smell.’ Karen Pocock, it emerged, had just found out she’d got breast cancer. Six months’ chemotherapy ahead of her, no secondaries but two lymph glands involved.
      ‘Yes,’ said Stephanie, nodding vigorously. And you’ll never believe this but that makes five cases of breast cancer now in Heatherside Avenue.’
      ‘Five,’ nodded Stephanie. ‘Including Karen’s 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, that’s what I say! She had a miscarriage too, and they say that ups your—’
      ‘Must dash,’ I said, moving away as fast as I could. ‘See you at the book club. I’ve got to get Tillie from tae kwon do in a minute.’
      Harry and I have three girls: Chloe, fourteen—she’s a worker, she’s started revising for her GCSEs already, a year in advance; Anna, she’s eleven, nothing worries her, typical middle child, my little couch potato; and Tillie, who’s 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 Aslan’s dead body, and there was a bit where it said, You know that feeling when you’ve cried yourself to sleep? I can still see Tillie’s puzzled round face on the pillow, the way she said, ‘No, Mum, I don’t know that feeling.’ How I beamed with satisfaction at this—smugness, you might call it. Ah well, pride goes before a fall.
      It’s an odd thing but when someone’s 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. There’s a lot of talk now about how it makes sense to go for pre-emptive surgery if you’ve 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 cancer—and there are an awful lot of them —just in case. ‘It doesn’t do to dwell on things,’ I said to her. ‘You could be run over by a bus tomorrow.’ But my heart wasn’t in it; privately I found myself thinking, that filing business sounds rather a good idea.
      ‘How’s 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 year.
      ‘Not good news,’ said Sadie with an unhappy grin. ‘We took him into UCH last night. They said. They said, he probably won’t 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 tumour’s the size of an orange,’ she said, blowing her nose. ‘I’d just bought a net of oranges for juicing and they went straight in the bin. I’m not touching oranges again, ever.’
      I do wish doctors would keep away from food when they’re 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 wouldn’t 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 mouse’s 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 she’d finished digging around and had withdrawn those metal salad servers, I realised how jittery I’d been feeling.
      ‘That didn’t 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.
      ‘Don’t tell me,’ she said with feeling. She glanced again at my notes. ‘Ah, you’re just the age that starts to happen. I’ve 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. It’s 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. ‘Don’t leave too much of a mess.’
      ‘But I’m only thirty-six,’ I said. She shrugged.

*  *  *

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 I’m asleep.’
      ‘A hundred and ten!’ said Tillie. ‘But I want to be awake to see what it’s like. As long as it doesn’t hurt.’
      It must have been some time in October, I’d made a recipe from the paper for pumpkin soup but—like so many pumpkin recipes—it was disappointing, I could tell that from Harry’s face. He’s 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.
      ‘That’s not very cheerful, darling,’ I said.
      ‘What’s cremated?’ asked Tillie.
      ‘Burnt in a fire,’ said Anna, ‘so there’s 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 don’t want to be in the ground if it’s like the garden,’ said Tillie. ‘I hate worms. But I’m scared of fire.’
      ‘Let’s change the subject,’ I said.
      ‘There’s 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. ‘I’m choosing that one.’
      ‘That’s enough,’ said Harry, putting the paper down at last. ‘Didn’t you hear your mother?’
The book group was no better. There was one meeting at Stephanie’s 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 while.’
      ‘None for me thanks,’ I said. ‘I’ve 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 don’t know,’ I said. ‘It’s about half a stone.’
      ‘Susan’s married to an actuary,’ said Stephanie proudly. ‘We were saying the group needed new blood and she’s 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 interest.
      ‘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.
      ‘Who’s 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 actuary’s 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 it’s just a case of Anno Domino.’
      ‘Did anyone read the book?’ asked Tricia, ‘Not to change the subject or anything.’
      ‘Wuthering Heights,’ said Stephanie witheringly. ‘Didn’t do a thing for me.’
      ‘Oh no!’ cried Tricia. ‘Didn’t you like Heathcliff? I thought Heathcliff was amazing.’
      ‘I don’t agree,’ said Stephanie. ‘Anyway, he dies, for no good reason I could see. What sort of hero’s that? More wine, anyone?’
      But since she’d already told us earlier that our risk of breast cancer rose by 6% for every glass we drank, we all said no.

*  *  *

      ‘No they couldn’t get it all out,’ said Philippa. Her face was steroid-puffy and she’d just been showing me the scar on her part-shaven scalp. She’d kept the staples from her head and held them out to me in a little Murano glass dish.
      ‘It’s very aggressive, apparently,’ she said. ‘I’m trying to get Greg to see what’s happening but he’s finding it really hard to, um, take it on board.’
      I sipped my coffee. I didn’t say anything. ‘It’s difficult for him,’ said Philippa.
      ‘But it’s even more difficult for you,’ I blurted.
      ‘Oh I don’t know,’ she said casually. ‘I’m fed up with it. There’s been a flood of people I haven’t 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 don’t feel up to them.’
      ‘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.’
      ‘Hallowe’en,’ 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 don’t you have a nap? Agnieska’s got them till one, hasn’t she? How’s she working out?’
      ‘I don’t know,’ said Philippa. ‘There seems to be a lot of screaming and shouting but I can’t... We’ve not been an au pair family before. I don’t know how to do it. Still, I’m sure I’ll learn.’
      The doorbell rang. It was her next door neighbour with a batch of flapjacks and a request to cut down some overhanging branches from Philippa’s 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 can’t think what I want to be most,’ said Tillie on the way home. ‘A skellington. Or a witch. No I don’t want to be a witch, all the girls are being witches.’
      ‘Jasmine and the twins are coming trick-or-treating with us,’ I said. ‘That’ll be nice, won’t it. I bet they’re 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 Anna’s teachers went off on compassionate leave when her beautiful student daughter was killed in a car accident. The teenage son of Harry’s secretary Paula dropped dead of a heart attack during a Sunday morning football match. The woman in the dry cleaner’s told me about her husband’s seventy-year-old mother who had hanged herself from the banisters after her daughter’s slow death from cancer.
      It was unbearable. I felt wild with fury when I heard such awful things. I thought, that’s just not on. It’s one thing if you’ve had a good innings but Philippa hadn’t had a good innings or anything like it, and neither had most of these people. We’d been led up the garden path. We’d been living in a fool’s paradise. I wanted to make a complaint, write a letter to the manager in no uncertain terms.
      Stephanie rang to let me know what she’d 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 Kitchen’s funeral on Saturday?’
      ‘I think we might be away,’ I lied. Harry would be working at the weekend and I didn’t want to take Tillie and Anna to a funeral. Anyway, I don’t like it when they say they’ve just gone into the room next door,’ I added. ‘Or that they’re having a nice cup of tea with their loved ones in heaven. Sorry, are you religious, Stephanie?’
      ‘I wouldn’t say I was overtly religious. I mean, I don’t 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 wasn’t 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. ‘It’s like being in a lift and suddenly it plunges down. It’s like falling down a lift shaft,’ I mumbled. I almost added that it felt like a premonition, but stopped myself.
      ‘That sounds perfectly normal,’ she smiled. ‘Nothing to worry about, it won’t do any harm at all. It’s called an extra systole but really it’s nothing to worry about.’
      ‘Oh good,’ I said. ‘I thought I might need a triple bypass or something.’
      ‘There’s 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 I’d been nowhere near deer) or chlamydia (which would be unlikely at this stage) or— my personal favourite— rheumatoid arthritis. But I decided against.
      ‘No, I’m fine,’ I said. ‘Now that I know it’s only an extra systole and I’m not just slowly dying.’
      ‘Oh we’re 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 wasn’t 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, ‘It’s a charnel house!’ ‘What?’ said Harry blearily.
      ‘I’m so sorry for everybody,’ I moaned.
      ‘Worse things happen at sea,’ grumbled Harry.
      ‘At sea?’
      ‘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 weren’t they more worried? Particularly the old ones. Why weren’t 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 Harry’s 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. ‘I’ve 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, don’t you?’ she said, and smiled in some version of triumph.
      Then she started feeding peanuts into her tea again. ‘What’s the matter?’ she said when she saw me staring. ‘Haven’t 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 mother’s eighty-seven. And there’s Sadie’s husband, forty-one, he went running every morning before work and now he’s dead.’
      ‘It’s 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. I’d just dropped Tillie off at school and I was on my way back home. I’m glad she wasn’t 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 nurse’s 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. He’d had a big night out, the driver, and he hadn’t 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.
      I’ve recovered my natural reluctance to dwell on things, thank goodness. You hear people say, ‘I think about death every day,’ as if that’s something to be proud of, but I can’t help thinking, so what? We’re none of us going to get any further on that subject until it’s our turn. I try not to dwell on how my friend Philippa died, because that still makes me cry. It wasn’t 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.

© Helen Simpson

This electronic version of "Every Third Thought" appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the publisher. It appears in the author´s collection Constitutional, Jonathan Cape, 2005. The US edition will be published by Knopf, May 2007.  Book ordering available through  amazon.com.

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author bio
Helen Simpson
Derek Thompson


Helen Simpson is the author of Four Bare Legs in a Bed (1990), Dear George (1995) and Hey Yeah Right Get a Life (2000). In 1991 she was chosen as the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year and won the Somerset Maugham Award.  In 1993 she was chosen as one of Granta's twenty Best of Young British Novelists.  For Hey Yeah Right Get a Life she was awarded the Hawthornden Prize and the E.M. Forster Award.  She lives in London.
See also
Wurstigkeit, issue 22.

Issue 53: May - June 2006  

f i c t i o n

Helen Simpson: Every Third Thought
Josip Novakovich: Night Guests
Rattawut Lapcharoensap: At the Café Lovely
Craig Dixon: Box Count
David Ramos Fernandes: Blossom

picks from back issues

Barry Gifford: Holiday from Women and Dancing With Fidel
Des Dillon: The Blue Hen

q u i z

Animals in Literature
answers to last issue’s quiz:
American Lit and Culture of the1960s

b o o k   r e v i e w s

The Stars Above Veracruz by Barry Gifford
The Priest of Evil by Matti-Yrjänä Joensuu

r e g u l ar  f e a t u r e s

Book Reviews (all issues)
TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)
TBR Archives  (by issue)

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