Jörn Cann wasn’t my friend. He was my doctor.
He was famous before we even met him as the doctor who had had what we’d had. ‘He knows what you’ll be going through,’ whispered my consultant.
Moments later he put his arm around me and told me we were not going to get on, on account of me being a Chelsea fan. If it is possible to fall in love when you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer, that is what happened to me.
He was the least PC person I have known. He swore, beautifully and extravagantly, at everything. He admonished me for being ‘male’ about my treatment, only to display great tenderness mere seconds later as he reassured me I was in fact ‘sailing through’ it.
The first day of my chemotherapy I saw him leap out of his chair, stride across the ward and bend his runner bean frame down to the face of a sleeping patient. ‘Have you died or something?’ he shouted. ‘Why not?’ This particular patient was known on the ward for her loquaciousness, keeping up a running commentary on every minutiae of her thinking and seeing. Once the laughter from behind the desk had died down, I could see what Jörn wanted was not to be left alone.
He held my hand, told me to fuck off, sat with me in silence.
When the (mistaken) news came of my relapse arrived it was Jörn who talked us through the implications, pretending to temper his language as he went: ‘If you’re given a shit pack of cards, those are the ones you play with.’
We found later that he had relapsed himself only the previous day.
I still saw him on the ward after my treatment had finished. We talked about football, his rock collecting expeditions, his photography.
There seemed nothing he wasn’t interested in.
The last time I saw him was in a supermarket near to the hospital. He stopped as he always did for a natter, asking after my family, our trolleys almost touching.
He had just finished another trip for some rocks, up a volcano I think he said.
The way it starts. With an ending. Just before our love got lost. We have all been here: the wit of welcome. But the voice, shattered, early morning. A rasp. Nothing left to give. (The whole point.) Then Canada. O Canada. A moment of pure release, luxuriating in the extended vowels – hymn to landscape, a horizon I do not know but now image because of this voice. Just a nudge on the gas, nothing more, exquisite. In my blood like holy wine, sung with exhaustion, not celebration.
The pressure on the word lonely. This has been felt. Love is touching souls? An angel begins to climb the stairs, looking forward to what might be up there. You’re in my blood, now with a bit more purpose. I still don’t believe she’d still be on her feet. she’s saying it to be truthful to the idea (what you do in a cover: stick to the script) of faithfulness, of hanging in there, of showing up.
I met a woman. Joni sings man. kd, I do love you. The difference is? (The difference of course!) The pressure of that syllable: deeds. An entire history of untold stories and unmentionable betrayals. Deeds. What we do to each other. When we want to, when we don’t. When we’re looking, when the other is looking the other way. Intentional? There are no accidents. She knows what she’s doing. She knew your deeds. And now we do, too.
Go with it and stay with it. Joni sings him. kd. The twist. The gauntlet thrown down. Have you any idea what you are letting yourself in for, this thing, this horse ride rollercoaster lifeboat rising tide called love. Have you? Any idea whatsoever?
Be prepared to bleed. A fried said that to me once. Her kitchen, not mine. Papers between us. Sunlight. The last time I saw her, thin, knowing she had months. Her cancer and mine. Be prepared to bleed. She finished the quote for me. She knew everything, had read and listened to it all.
You’re in my blood like holy wine. This third time holy is extended, a howl, possibilities of God, sex, rawness and The End collapsing into each other. Wine no longer whines but it triumphant. An explosion. In that kitchen I said: This is my chemo-hymn. You’re so bitter, baby, and so sweet. The insertion of baby, this last time round. She loved that, taking something out of context and twisting it, making it into something else entirely which has nothing to do with anything except itself, a universe only you walk in, private and unsullied. Desire. Release. Healing. Collapse.
I could not listen to it for months.
For months it had been there and now I could not bear it. It came on in a car park once. I had to call my counsellor. Tears in Aisle 7, with the dishwasher tablets, for no reason, out of nowhere.
I could drink. The voice cracking on I.
The cracked I. Cracked and collapsed. Singing.
The room is small, the size of a student bedsit. An enormous grey sofa takes up most of the space. Someone has thought very carefully about not placing it alongside the wall, so it sits at an angle to it, taking up even more space, almost on top of you as soon as you walk in. This is on the right side. To the left are two smaller armchairs, one in the corner facing away from the door, the other pointing towards the sofa. Between the chairs is a small table with a box of tissues on top of it. In the tight angle between the sofa and the armchair is another table, also with tissues.
Above the sofa are three shelves. These are fixed to the wall with movable runners, but it looks like they have never been moved.
Across the surface of each shelf at careful intervals, are objects of significance. A clock, thick, artisan candles, vases which shrink to flowers with a single stem. On the wall opposite is a framed poster of more flowers, an Impressionist classic.
The walls are beige.
We are cuddling on the sofa when Jörn bounds in to join us.
He fills the whole room, his legs and arms refusing to be still as he talks us through the next steps of treatment. He mentions something called a hickman line. I am to have one fitted tomorrow. ‘You won’t be under, well, not completely, more like a triple Scotch under. You’ll enjoy it,’ he says.
‘What about you, what do you do?’ we say.
‘I find a bottle of vodka and an evening of speed metal usually does the trick. Then move on. Deal with it.’
‘I’m not saying…’ He stops suddenly, catching himself saying what he doesn’t want to tell us. ‘I’m not. It’s not over, Tony. We never say that. Never. It’s just a bit shit, that’s all. You need to look at what you have. Your family. Your life. Then look at the shit. The shit is not you. You are you. Your family. That’s what you have. That. Nothing else matters. Not really.’
He catches himself again and looks at us with a grin.
‘What about Nigeria for the World Cup, eh? I’ve got them in the staff sweepstake. Even bought the shirt.’
‘Who did these curtains?’ my wife says. ‘They’re appalling.’
‘Good woman,’ Jörn says. ‘I said they were shit the day they put them up. Not that they listened of course.’
Don’t forget, this is inside us every day
This is not happening. It happened. Past tense.
One day, every day, eight years, a minute ago.
When they told me, they said, they are saying.
Mr Wilson. Anthony. (Tony). Darling. My lover.
It looks like. If you could. You have great veins.
Here is a gown. Here is a bag. Here are your pills.
Yes, you will. Yes, you will. It will, yes. All of it.
We don’t know. (We will never know). We don’t know.
No. Because. Maybe your genes. More likely your.
It’s best if you. If you can. We advise it. Everyone.
One day, that day, this, after another, today, May.
I am not angry, was not, shall not be. But I am angry.
Today, when they said ‘Actually…’ A minute ago.
With perhaps and maybe. Not No. We love Yes.
Yesterday. When it happened. (Present tense). Now then.
It left, it is leaving, it never. I am still waving goodbye.