A Tuesday, appropriately. (Tuesday being the day I was formally diagnosed.) Poetic, it strikes me now. But at the time, no. At the time, my visit went like all the other visits before it. (How many? 23? 57? 102?) The cycle to get there on time, having forgotten it was in the diary (it had only been there for 18 months). The slight feeling of nausea on walking through the automatic doors. That smell, somewhere between cleaning fluids, freshly vacuumed carpet and heated up pastry. The practised, wan smile of the receptionist. (Someone has introduced new uniforms for clerical staff: smoky-rose scrubs.)
The photo of Jörn, paddling in a canoe, above the receptionist’s head. Where he is (Where is he? I want to tell him my news!) is summer, eternally, the river beneath him a deep and unguent green. Head held high, tossed behind him for a quick grin at the camera. Click. Then on with his paddling. Eternally looking forward.
The queue at the hatch for hot food, sandwiches, the aforementioned pastry products. The man behind the counter is a hipster, balder than me and with a giant beard. His smile twinkles as he answers each person by name.
The late arrival of Dr Important, seven foot tall in his striding navy suit, a battered attache case with nothing in it swinging from his left arm. A brief nod to the bloods nurse who addresses him by name. A minute later he marches down the corridor in the opposite direction, having shed his jacket, his white sleeves rolled up to display his hairy forearms. I never knew him. He had a different specialism from my own consultant, ‘retiring’ mid-way through my treatment. How did that work out I wonder?
The fish tank in the corner. Always the same, always different, like any water. Two black bottom feeders are chasing two bright blue top feeders. In and out of the swaying green grasses they go, spitting pebbles. After a minute they subside, and go back to their work, grateful, ignoring everything. Then, as though having noticed the blue fish for the very first time, their chase begins again.
The book corner. Where has the book corner gone? All those gory thrillers about real-life serial killers and plots to assassinate Kennedy? All the misery memoirs? All the Stephen King? Instead there are magazines, piles of them, a better class of trash, it strikes me, than when I last sat here. An Oldie books-of-the-year-roundup from 2015. The Exeter Living awards, 2016. Between those two titles lies a lot of unnoticed irony.
The young woman in the corner, the only patient anywhere near my age and the only one to give me eye contact. She walks stiffly, I notice, though smiles at the doctor like an old friend as they shake hands before disappearing into her office. When she emerges eight minutes later she looks neither downcast nor elated. She gives me a brief nod before signing out at reception.
Then it’s me, my name, my smile taking me across the room in three paces to where Denise stands with her clipboard in the doorway calling me lover. Same giant green armchair in the bloods room, same giant bread machine to spin the bloods, same scales under another photo of Jörn next to the door. ‘Stand there my lover while we weigh you.’ Just outside, in an ante room between us and the corridor, two nurses stand arms folded regaling each other about the night they had last night. ‘How you keeping then lover?’ Denise is swabbing my arm and saying sharp scratch like she has a hundred times before, though if anything the needle is in my vein before her words even reach me. She barely needs to watch what she is doing, so practised is she, the vials of blood the colour of port flying out of her hands and labelled into the waiting kidney dish.
I take a last look at Jörn. He is sitting on his lawn, cradling a tumbler of vodka and tonic in one hand, and in the other an enormous and happy-looking Rottweiler. September sunlight (at a guess) slants across his face, though he is not squinting. He beams his ever-hopeful smile. The smile of a man who knows that what he has been through no longer defines who he is. The picture, as we say, of happiness.
Barely time to register the chasing fish before it is my name again, out into the corridor, a handshake with Dr 2 (we have met once before) who invites me to sit down as she lifts open my folder. Everything with a smile, I notice, everything precise. A new blank page for her notes. ‘How have you been? Your levels are good and your weight is good.’ I tell her I have taken up swimming again. Without meaning to, I tell her I haven’t felt this good in ages. She asks me to pop onto the bed for a quick examination. Groin, under my arms, neck. ‘That’s great,’ she says. ‘You are clear.’
Back at her desk she looks momentarily grave. ‘Tell me where you were radiated.’ I point to the right side of my abdomen, just above my waist. ‘You need to know there is the possibility of sequelae for many years as a result of your previous treatment.’ I look at her blankly. ‘Which means,’ she takes a slight pause, ‘the chance of new disease developing is greater than your lymphoma returning.’ She pauses again. ‘For example, in your bowel. Or prostate.’ She reels off a list of scenarios which would require a visit to my GP. Then she smiles. ‘So from our point of view you are effectively cured. We are going to discharge you. The chances of your cancer returning now are very remote.’ I look across the desk at her, trying to take in what I have just heard.
‘So that’s it then?’
‘That’s it, yes.’
‘I don’t need to come in again?’
‘You don’t need to come in again.’
‘Thank you. Wow. I mean, thank you.’
We stand and Dr 2 comes around the desk to shake my hand goodbye. ‘Thank you,’ I say again. ‘Thank you.’
Back at reception, a new clerical assistant is being shadowed by a co-worker. ‘It’s my first day,’ she says, looking up at me. ‘Bear with me.’ I hand her my form and wait for her to process what it says. ‘Oh, a discharge, how wonderful, well done you!’
‘A nice one to start a new job with,’ I say to her.
I thank her and turn to leave, and take in my last look at Jörn, his boat pointing towards the future.