The ward is lit like the sky before a thunderstorm and from his bay Bill Hare can see right to the end, but only in the one direction, towards the nurses’ station. The other side is as unknown to him as the dark side of the moon. He tells his consultant oncologist this as a joke, and two days later she puts a book on his bedside locker: A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin. Her hands make brief, doubtful movements while she tells him how her job takes her to conferences all over the country, the whole world, in fact, because even in the rainforest they still get cancer. She says that it’s hard to be apart from her family and Bill knows she is only pretending to read the charts that confirm his urine output is low today.
My husband is funny, she says. He calls me up at whatever hotel I’m in and tells me to open the window and look at the moon.
He looks too, from the window at home. Doesn’t matter where in the world you are, it’s still the same moon.
Yes it is.
It connects us, see?
What? You both -? Oh. Okay, you look at the moon.
The consultant oncologist blinks fast. She is offering him the moon as palliative care where chemo and radiotherapy have failed, but this is something a woman of medicine cannot say aloud; this is something Bill must come to understand for himself. Bill thinks what the hell? but the gesture is nice. Still, it is not reassuring to know that away from his hospital bed she is a person who misses her family and cries because some of her patients will die and her medical training cannot help them, although books might. A man, he thinks, would have kept this hidden. It is because of this that Bill feels compelled to pat the consultant oncologist’s hand when she sets the book on his locker, but in doing so he makes things impossible. When it comes to the miracle of denial, whatever happens from this point on, he has overtaken her.
Bill is actually not much given to reading but he believes in good manners and here is the thing: once he lets go of the old scepticism a funny restlessness starts to waken in him with each new page. He inhales the raft of smells that must come from the fingerprints that have touched this book, hundreds of them, perfumed, nicotine stained, antiseptic, all impressed on the paper. It’s good, maybe even a little addictive. He could put the book down but he could also read just one more paragraph. This new compulsion is prompted not by morphine but a wild ecstasy for the unknown and it is genuine, oh how it’s genuine! Bill hasn’t had a true feeling like this since he can’t remember when. He isn’t sure he understands it all correctly but still; faithfully he reads about the Gemini reconnaissance missions and how the moon’s gravitational field meant the Eagle landed four miles from its aim point. The lunar surface is like a dirty beach, he learns, but also perfect as plaster of Paris, lonely and forbidding, or brilliant, the astronauts can’t seem to decide. In many ways the consultant oncologist is a genius, but she is also wrong about one important thing: it is not the same moon wherever you are in the world. It is not even the same Earth.
There are nights when Bill falls asleep thinking he is inside the Apollo 8, but being caught in the trajectory of the moon this way is no bad thing. It’s a peaceful place to be. The motions of steering the rocket are as natural to him as eating and breathing. He closes his eyes and scans the radar for fatal mountain peaks, the ones that NASA hasn’t charted, and all the while they push on through a splendid, silent world, every movement as easy as being underwater. Below are the Sea of Crises and the Marsh of Sleep, names he could never have imagined really existing. Deep space is lavender coloured, spangled with exactly the sort of bright lights you’d see in a child’s drawing and all Bill can think is how beautiful it really is, how ready he is for the impact.
His sister visits sometimes. They joke about the irony of his bed being in E Bay, but it can’t dissipate the waiting or his worry that she isn’t taking care of herself properly. Ellen Hare has a tendency towards depression. It started when she was sixteen and before clocking any of the standard teenage milestones Bill had gotten to be an expert in recognizing the signs, a certain swooping grace to the way Ellen walked, a preoccupation with facts and lists, as if through the magic of numbers she could hold back tides, storms, war. It isn’t possible to rescue her from a hospital bed: when she comes to visit the change has occurred or it hasn’t. Bill’s own bad days are simple in comparison and centred mainly around intensive pain relief, but he cannot relieve Ellen of her pain and sometimes he is angry with her because she just seems to want to hold on to it all, and the intensity with which she does this is only possible because she doesn’t know real pain, just like he didn’t know real pain, and if she did he can only think she’d want to get the fuck out of the pit she’s been wallowing in for forty nine years. The truth of it is that his love for Ellen is no more than the relief that comes when he is done with being angry, but love is a terrible thing like that, Bill thinks, love of any kind is no better than some scavenger that comes laughing out of the dark to feast on the kill.
On her next visit he says he’s worried she’s bit off-colour. Ellen Hare sweeps her hands, cupping the air in helpless parentheses by way of objection.
I’m eating a lot of food out of packets, she says. That rice you do in the microwave? Maybe that’s it.
Well you look like shit, love. When I get out of here there’s going to be some changes. You can’t live on microwave rice.
It’s surprisingly good, she says and reaches for his hand from across the bed, holding it for a moment longer than is really required, because they both knew that although it is not yet impossible, it is increasingly unlikely that he will get out of here. A cellular blanket stretches out over the bed like the dim waters of the estuary he can see from his window at home and Ellen is distant, a dot in his eye, over on the other side just as she is in reality, in the house that was their grandparents’ on the better side of the river. Royalty visits Ellen’s side, as do film stars and the children of very rich people. But the estuary itself is just the visible statement of separation. Ellen has always been on the other side, although who is to say which side is the other and which the constant is anyone’s guess. Make sure you get your five a day, he tells her. Just do this one thing for me.
It doesn’t really bother Bill that Ellen inherited the money. He chose another way, bikes, drink, the city and worse, and there was a time when he loved that life with a dirty, guiltless passion he wouldn’t have given up for anybody. You could say that seeing how things have turned out, the version of the world where Ellen got the house, the bonds, a modest amount of shares in safe bets, is entirely correct. It’s just that he has spent such a long time watching out for her you’d think he might be owed a little something. Over the years her fear has multiplied out of control like some invading virus, feeding first off her and then him and now the two of them have become fused into a new and ugly shape that wouldn’t have been discovered had Ellen been the sort of girl who just married a guy from school and got a job in a call centre. Maybe a child would have given her some perspective.
The first few counselling sessions he went to after he was diagnosed were all about perspective. Mainly about how to achieve it and how to maintain it; maintaining it was traditionally the difficult part. The counsellor told him that it was normal to ask the question: why me? But this was not something Bill had ever asked. Why not him? This was a good response, a healthy attitude, he must have got it from some higher place, some kind of zen intuition. But he had not. He offered up the simple equation: you are the sort of boy who can’t quite find his niche, you do some drugs, it equals you meet the wrong people, you do the wrong things. Then you meet one right person and everything changes. You change. You try to atone for your old, unenlightened ways. You become a Mentor to Young People, then an advisor to the police where your job is to point out the windows that can be jimmied open; you have a particular talent for noticing the vulnerable cat flaps and letterboxes. You do other, subtler things like always making a point of giving way to drivers when it is your right to go, and even though the one right person didn’t stick around long enough to notice your efforts and absolutely nothing is changed by any of this, the sum of it all is that at least you can say you tried. Actually it is quite a complex equation. Still. What did you try? Bill wants to ask his sister. Seriously, what did you try?
There are cherry tomatoes in my hanging baskets, he tells Ellen when she gets up to leave. Go and help yourself when you get home. Make sure you do.
On Bill’s side of the ward the doctors do their rounds twice daily to issue medications and advice, and not much changes until you are sent across the corridor for theatre. The light is low and claustrophobic there and the nurses hurry through a space punctuated by the slide of ventilators and infusion pumps, inhuman sounds. Bill knows this because sometimes he stops and listens when he makes his way to the shared toilets, imagining that he is moving through the holes left behind by these noises. It is a bit like swimming through the wreckage of a shipping disaster. The relief at finding yourself still there, able to swim, is tempered by the presence of things floating past, someone’s shoes they will never wear outside again, or books so waterlogged that the words bear no resemblance to the language you’ve known all your life. These things tell of another kind of sadness, something the entire ocean can’t dilute away. Bill moves through the debris and wonders how many things are falling down to the sea bed while he shuffles off for a crap.
There is a nurse, one of the younger ones, whom he likes. Newly qualified, he supposes, because she can only do observations and basic IV work. She has a name that you don’t hear very often these days, but the morphine makes him forgetful and most of the time he can’t think what, other than it is a flower name, not one of the prettier ones. She is a pretty girl though, with pre-Raphaelite hair and skin that seems hard and bright, like she is made of diamond. He is not so far gone that he hasn’t realised this is merely a mirage of the drugs. Her cheeks are covered in a fine hair that makes him wonder about anorexia, but that could just be the drugs too, interfering with the ability of his retina to evenly process light and shade, as they also interfere with his ability to control his bladder and remember what day of the week it is. Although it has never been Bill’s thing he can see why some men like their girls to wear nurses’ uniforms, something about the knee length skirt and the little hats having the power to make the wearer both a person you would like to fuck and a person you wouldn’t mind cleaning shit off your backside, and he guesses too that some men are imagining a time far away in a chintzy bedroom where girls are dressing up together and kissing it better.
The pretty nurse comes to his bedside with a tray, the usual syringes; clexane, diazepam, and a few empty phials for bloods. Cocktail hour, he murmurs and she bends over him, but only to pick up his arm and conduct the necessary formalities.
William Hare, she reads, holding his wrist and checking the name against the pad on the drugs trolley. Hospital number F3467008.
That’s me, he says. Most people call me Bill, love, but for you I’ll make an exception. F34 is fine.
Well F34, she says. I’m just going to give you your sedative. Would you assume the foetal position and lift your top buttock, please?
The intimacy of these relationships startles him. These are girls who have seen inside you from every angle and there is no preparation, no forty minutes in front of the mirror to get ready for this kind of show. Nobody warns you about this when you are twenty-five. One day there will be strangers looking at your body, putting cameras inside you to rummage through the orchid pink gullies of your lower intestines, and when your veins collapse and someone comes running to flush them out, you will feel the same humiliation as losing an erection. Now that Bill would have liked to have been told. There was a time, before his legs became too weak to make the journey down to the hospital concourse, when he sank two pints of Pepsi in ten minutes and the bag covering his gastrostomy exploded across two tables. The need to make his own mistakes, and by this he meant the grand rebellion of choosing his own diet, had been voracious, and he couldn’t think why he had wanted to drink so much and so quickly. The unfortunate nurse who found herself first on the scene hooked him back up without a fuss but for Bill, horrified by an image of a girl in the neighbouring seat groping in his stomach juices and cola for her purse, that has never been the end of it. He can picture the purse now, some sort of geometric print and glistening, washed across the floor in the tide.
Humour a dying man, can’t you? he says, bracing himself against the cold sting of the hypodermic. Tell me a story. Any story.
What do you mean, like something made up? The pretty nurse doesn’t take her eye off the syringe, tongue just visible against her lip, concentrating on the glass like she’s tapping for a seam of gold. Not everyone is as diligent as she. There are always rumours about how when the wards get too full the nurses start doling out air bubbles, straight to the heart and starting with the old folks first, but Bill doesn’t believe them, watches her tapping away and thinks this must be how angels appear, not in an eruption of light but in a little blue uniform with breasts and everything.
Yes. Isn’t that what you call a story?
All right. I know what a story is. I just didn’t get what you wanted it for.
To pass the time. To remind me of the other world.
The other world?
I’ve only got five minutes, and if I do it for one I should do it for everyone. So no. It has to be a no.
But something in his eye must break her and because the matron is busy and she reckons on actually having at least eight, nine minutes before anyone will really notice what she is doing, the nurse relents and sits on the side of his bed. Okay, she says, shrugging. Her cheek is unexpectedly broken by an entire dimple that seems as impossible as a complete rainbow and suddenly, incredibly, she is involved. Bill has involved her in the business of his dying. For a minute he feels bad about this. He is no longer F3467008, and this will not help her much, even if it makes things a little better for him.
Okay? he says.
I said it was okay! Now shoot. What kind of story do you want?
I’ll go first to warm you up, he says and he tells her about the Pepsi and the gastrostomy.
That was Hannah from ICU, she says. Just about everyone’s heard that one. So you’re the Bagbuster. Lucky me.
Bill assumes that Hannah from ICU is not the girl with the purse, but this isn’t made clear and he doesn’t ask. He isn’t sure in which version he’d have come off worst. The purse looked expensive and he supposes he should have offered to pay but now he feels a little buzz, having achieved infamy in this way. He tells the pretty nurse to go ahead, it’s her turn, and she puts her head on one side, ducking it to the left shoulder and then the right while she thinks. It isn’t hard to see this is the method by which she has won over men all her life, how she has made her father pay her phone bill or allow her to stay out late.
Okay, she says, finally. This isn’t made up. But it is a good story. Are you ready?
She tells him that a girl was killed in one of the nurses’ houses. It was her boyfriend who did it, she says.
It’s always the boyfriend, Bill says.
So they say.
One of the Sisters turns an interested circle through the bay and the pretty young nurse draws the curtains with such expertise that Bill knows that at some point in her life she has lived opposite a boy and that he was probably about two years older than her and attractive. The nurse’s voice lowers.
Her name was Mariella. They found her naked on the living room floor. I heard she’d been stabbed fifty times. I mean, that’s anger.
I knew someone who got stabbed once, Bill says, but the pretty nurse gives him a look that sucks the words he is about the say right back into a place where language doesn’t exist and the only vessels for communication are hands, eyes, invisible gestures that are picked up like radar. The look suggests she suspects him of inventing a stabbed friend just to poach back centre stage. She tells him how the police came and talked to everyone in the murdered girl’s block.I heard it from an agency girl, she says. No word of a lie, there was this one detective and he actually said, “There’s been a murder,” you know like on TV. There’s been a murder. I can’t do the accent. Bill nods to show that he knows exactly what she means, even though she’s right, she can’t do the accent. Anyway, they arrested him, she tells him. The boyfriend.
Now Bill feels his body tense in one long contraction of longing to hear where this is going, because amazingly their positions have reversed and he is the one involved in her life, he is in the nurses’ housing, he is stumbling into the room where there is a bloodied body on the floor; it is his voice on the phone to the police, There’s been a murder. The longing builds into a wave. If he lets it go, it will smash him. He has seen how a wave can smash the human form right below his own house, down on the beach where it is dangerous to swim outside the flags. It is dangerous but people do it all the time and make it necessary for other people risk their lives for them, all the time. He sees the wave coming. The wave is silent. It is vital he doesn’t let it break. He is back in the Apollo 8, leaving the wave behind.
And then what?
That’s it. That’s the story.
That’s it? That’s what you call a story?
Well excuse me, she says. I’m a nurse, not a fucking writer. Oh God. Are you going to report me for that?
No, Bill says. I stirred it up a bit.
There is a moment where he expects the nurse to leave and he is thinking of some way to say thank you for this thing she just done for him, for being a light on a dark corridor in a way that is only barely a metaphor, when she says, Actually, it might not be the whole story.
There was something else I heard.I heard it wasn’t the boyfriend at all, but some crazy patient. He reckoned he was in love with her or something, wouldn’t leave her alone. It was okay while he was stuck in here but then he got better. She reported it and all, but the police said they couldn’t do anything until he did something.
Is that true?
The pretty nurse shrugs. It’s what I heard.
Something occurs to him as the nurse stands to go, parting the curtains as if they are water, and for a minute he thinks he may have only imagined her and the body on the living room floor. But then she is in front of him again, waiting for him to speak. I’m not some crazy patient, you know, he says finally, in case she is beginning to worry.
I know, she says, looping the cables of the emergency call button across the foot of his bed so he can reach it without leaning out. I know. I mean, I’m pretty sure I could take you out if I had to. No offence.
Bill is nearly asleep when she comes back to check his sats, the sedative coursing through his system like a canoe flying over rapids. The feeling is like being drunk but stronger, wilder, as if it isn’t just the room that’s spinning but the whole world, and then he feels ridiculous because that’s exactly what is happening, it’s just that up until now it’s been hard to believe. She tells him she’s putting him on the oxygen for a while and with the first sharp new breath he suddenly feels many things in one, the billow of the pump, the cold, mineral smell of her skin as she cups the mask across his nose, the swing of the Earth. He sees the dent in her lip where health and safety regulations have demanded she remove a piercing. He sees that her eyes are not the same colour and that sometime in her youth she has had chickenpox and could not resist the urge to scratch.
It is hard to tell because he isn’t even sure if this is sleep or a heightened state of wakefulness, but the pretty nurse is asking something. He only knows it is a question because her voice rises at the end of the sentence, but it doesn’t seem to stop, as though she has stepped off the sentence onto a ladder that has no end, climbing up and up and further and further away until all that exists of her is her voice, her question. Was that what you meant by the other world? she is saying, or it might be Are you comfortable? It occurs to Bill that her story has only made him realise that there are things happening all the time in places he doesn’t know by methods that would just never occur to a man like him, so perhaps it was exactly what he meant and also not what he meant at all. It is hard to be sure when he doesn’t know what he has been asked. Yes, yes, great, he says.
A short woman he doesn’t recognise slams through the privacy curtain, followed by three students. We’ve got you on our emergency list for tomorrow, she says brightly, as if offering him front row seats for the first game of the season. Someone will be along later to talk through the risks with you.
The last student in the line steps forward to ask if Bill’s next of kin are available.
Risks? Bill says but he is barely audible and the woman doesn’t linger, sensing how all this grand despair seems to put off the students. They follow her across the central corridor and away in gauzy slow-motion to the other side of the ward. But the last student in the line turns back to Bill’s bed, patting his pockets as if he has lost something, a pen, or his desire to be in this shadowed place. Bill shuts his eyes and breathes into the prism of the oxygen mask, out, out, out. Suddenly all his thoughts become questions. His only need is to be heard. If his voice is heard, he is living, he will continue to live.
At the precise moment of death, will I be able to look down at my body and see you trying to save me?
No, we don’t think so.
But how can you know for sure?
We don’t. But we’re fairly sure.
About 99.9% sure. Personally –
But the last student in the line doesn’t say what he personally feels and Bill’s relief at identifying his voice is like being lost at sea and seeing land, because aslong as the words remained dispossessed he was afraid the cancer had reached his brain, or it was God speaking.
How can that be? Bill hears himself asking. We put a man on the moon but we don’t know what happens when we die? What kind of half-assed scientists are you?
Science doesn’t have all the answers, the last student says as Bill opens his eyes. But it’s better that way, don’t you think, Mr Hare? Shit, my biro! They’re like gold dust round here.
In one of his deliriums Bill worries about the floor in his conservatory, which for some years has taken on an unpleasant smell in wet weather, he thinks possibly from when the dog was a puppy and still had accidents at night. The floor had been concrete at the time, the puppy having torn up the linoleum almost as soon as he arrived, so the urine soaked the floor in bright, phosphorescent circles that faded to shadows in seconds. He pictures the dog, surprised by the orbs of its own piss as if in a strange corruption of another old fable about the moon, where its reflection causes a fool to believe it has fallen in to the lake. Bill imagines the fool striding into the cold, black water with a rope and harness, he feels the sudden freeze under his own skin and it’s a strange, feinting sort of plunge as he finally goes under, looking for the moon. When he wakes up, two nurses are bending over him, changing the sheets. Don’t leave it until the last minute next time, the Nigerian one says sharply. Press your buzzer. Or better still, keep the urinal where you can reach it.
He looks out of the window and lets his eye follow the dark shapes that move towards and away from the glass like the coloured beads of a kaleidoscope. He watches the tree branches lunge down to the grass below and then rear, leonine, up into the night breeze, while the nurses roll and wipe and fold down an angry set of hospital corners. One of the shapes breaks free, and it seems that on the approach to the window some sharpness to the Autumn air is planing it down and down and down until it has angles, shadows and only in the last minute does the shape become a bird.
My dog, he says, in a hot fright. Who is looking after my dog? Then Ellen’s voice and a blurred tang of ten year old Glenfiddich as she leans across, missing his hand when she says, The dog’s dead, Billy-boy. He died, what, five years ago. We took his ashes up to Daymer Bay, do you remember?
Can I tell you something? Bill asks the pretty nurse in the morning, surprised and glad to see that she is still on duty to prep and move him across the ward for surgery. He would like to ask if there is any point to this latest procedure. More than that he would like to know whether or not he will even want the few extra months that carving out a section of his beleaguered liver might give him - but these are not medical questions, and Bill has been here long enough to understand that even consultants who use books as therapy will be unable, or unwilling to go into it. There is something else anyway, something subtler but more important that needs to be resolved, because the bottom line is that when he is on the table in two hours time there will be no magic, only science, which hasn’t got all the answers.
The impulse to tell is as urgent as anything he has ever known. He recalls that so many people die on the toilet because the need to defecate and an impending heart attack feel very much the same, and a worry fires up in him that either one of these two things might be about to happen. But minutes pass and neither does, so it is just the need to get the words out after all. The nurse sits on the edge of the bed and looks at him expectantly. After all that he doesn’t know how to start. If I don’t tell you then it’s like - he tries, but Bill cannot verbalise his fear on the first go.
I know what you’re saying, she says. It’s like if a butterfly flaps its wings.
No, it’s not! It’s something else. It’s like if a tree falls in a forest. If a tree falls and nobody hears it, did it make a sound?
You break my heart, he wants to say, because suddenly it is clear that human existence comes down to no more than this, a seesaw from the sublime to the ridiculous where everything is either absurd or happening in such deep isolation that no-one notices the moment of collapse. But he does not say it. Instead he motions for the urinal, heeding last night’s warning.
Wait, she says. Maybe it is the butterfly.
Bill Hare knows he can only be a disappointment now. He says that he worries he’s built this up into something big and she gives him a little thumbs up, psyching him along. When he starts to talk he won’t look at her, partly through embarrassment but also because, away over her shoulder he can actually see the past again, or at least a version of it where things seem to have become separated into their component parts for ease of classification. Under Nervous Apprehension he sees a parking meter, a bottle of wine. A weeping willow stands for Romance. He doesn’t remember the kids with a bucket bong being under the willow but memory works in strange ways like that, holding back some of the details until you are ready to embrace them all. Romeo and Juliet, he begins, but it isn’t much of a beginning. He finds there is less to say than he expected. Clare College Gardens. 1975. One of those outdoor theatre things. The nurse raises an eyebrow and he says, It wasn’t my idea. You do these things for people, don’t you?
He says ‘people’ in the same way he says ‘you do these things’ but the pretty nurse sees it is not the same at all. She pats his hand. I’m listening, she says. Take it away, mister.
She is right about how hard it is to tell a story. He tries one opening and then another. When he settles on a final version, not the most detailed but accurate enough, the words come out of him in a rush like a flock of tiny demented birds. It was dark and we were waiting for a lift I kept talking about the show I should have shut up but the night was like a miracle I wanted to tell someone the night was a miracle but those were the words I couldn’t seem to find. The words fly high and fast and free.
This was a person you were in love with?
Loved, is all he can say, relieved.
But you didn’t tell them.
Couldn’t you have…?
Moments go, love, he says. Bill cannot tell her how things went from there like little movements down a mountain, from this pinnacle of breathless, violent joy to some half way limbo and then suddenly it was as if the two of them were home free and there were no more obstacles, except that a crucial, exploratory urge had left them. But perhaps the pretty nurse feels the hurt under his skin in the same, simple way plants pull water out of the earth, perhaps she senses that what he is saying is that this is his one experience of romantic love and after that night, he was all done. That was the damndest part, being done with love so soon and with such permanence.
The lift turned up, he says, instead. That’s what happened.
So is that what you wanted to tell me?
Yeah, that’s it.
He is quiet for a minute, thinking of Stephen Hopkins in Clare College Gardens. Up until this morning he has only imagined them in the dark, under the trees in the same square foot of decanted light, but now he remembers that before this, at dusk, they were walking along the main road into the city and a dog ran out, a terrier or something equally small and snappy, scared the bejesus out of them. He remembers too that on Stephen Hopkins’ thumb was a wart the size of a small button and all the while the dog was snapping in circles around them it seemed that if Bill pressed the button a connection might be made, a circuit completed. But when the shock died down and the dog ran off into the bushes there was no reason for their hands to be touching in any way. He had not pushed the button. More and more things, he realises, are going to become like this, memories without focus like inexpert photographs with no-one to identify them, just a guessing game of disparate months, weeks, days.
I’m telling you this because you can’t take it with you, he says, suddenly afraid the pretty nurse doesn’t understand. This is all he has to pass on and suddenly it seems so small. He has heard the words as if the first time – this was someone you were in love with - and he starts to laugh, but it is the same sort of laugh that he couldn’t stop from coming when the doctor explained to him why it was too late for chemotherapy, a laugh pulled up from a sublimely lonely place. The doctor, who he feels he has come to know better than some of the people he unwillingly calls friends, had tapped across a map of his digestive organs with the eye of an expert jeweller finding imperfections on a set of stones you thought were going to be your fortune. See this shadow on your liver? Our best guess is a haematoma but the whole thing is covered in cysts in any case; the function is critically impaired. Then there’s your pancreas - shot to shit if I’m frank. Kidneys are good for another few months though, and Bill had rolled on to his side on the leather sofa, laughing at his valiant renal system, laughing his way into a darkness that some of the worst people he has met wouldn’t know. He laughs that way now.
It’s like a gift, Bill says to the pretty nurse, sobering down. Maybe some of the other goners give you something proper, watches maybe. Does that ever happen?
She doesn’t answer, just holds his hand. You’re not a goner, she says softly.
There was an owl hooting, he says. It hooted just at the bit where Romeo goes into the tomb. He says something about the lightning before death. That was my friend’s favourite line. If you’re ever imagining that night, don’t forget to put in the owl.
The fluorescent strips spatter a yellow light that’s enough to depress a person into giving up the ghost, which is pretty much how Bill imagined it would be on this side of the ward. The feeling of moving underwater has returned, but this time he is definitely swimming, stroking out into the cosmos alone where he can’t feel the palsied motions of the Apollo 8 any more. He lets the anaesthetist do what he has to, stares up at the fading strips. There is some mild concern about his clotting levels but his kidneys are still good, which really is funny. Bill has never seen the point in the expression funny ha ha or funny peculiar. Even before he was diagnosed it seemed to him that most things are pretty peculiar, that so much consequence should be attributed to a life system that is only the result of random catastrophe after all.
Your sister is in the relatives’ room, the pretty nurse mouths from the door and he shakes his head fast, God no, feeling a sudden panic that Ellen will come in and this odd little illusion he has created for himself will be ruined. See you on the other side then, she says, turning to follow the anaesthetist, but Bill isn’t done, won’t let her go. He doesn’t want to see what is on the other side. Sit with me, he says. He wants her to know what it felt like to be standing out on the road at dusk, right there next to Stephen Hopkins, and in one crazed moment he wants her to find Stephen Hopkins and bring him here to this hospital, the middle aged man that will be Stephen Hopkins sitting here with the old man that is William Hare, F347008. Instead, by some mean, alchemical process it comes out as: A girl your age doesn’t know about love.
The nurse won’t accept this to be true. I happen to be in love this very minute, she says.
What are you, twenty? Twenty two?
Nineteen, she rounds up.
Then you don’t know about love.
That’s such a cliche, she says, and her face tightens so quickly into an approximation of womanhood that he suspects she has to do this just to buy a lottery ticket.
Okay, tell me, Bill says gently and he really does want to know if it is possible to love and be loved from such a hallowed place as your teenage years. It seems a long time since he was nineteen, he can only suppose times have greatly changed. But he is glad to have asked, seeing how her face shimmers with the thrill of the tale. The most significant development in the history of love has been the Internet, she tells him. This is how she met PJ, who has been so good for her confidence, always telling her she’s beautiful, letting her meet all his friends. He takes pictures of me, she tells him proudly, then blushes. His friends take pictures of me. I never thought I was anything special, but they say I could be a real model. It must be the light or something. You have to know how to use the light, right? She is giddy with a sudden thought. I feel like Cheryl Cole, sometimes. PJ knows the right people, and I can’t keep doing double shifts just to pay the rent, so maybe… and the pretty nurse with diamond skin stares past Bill into a dream of money and paparazzi fanning her door.
This boy, Bill says slowly. How old is he?
PJ? He’s not a boy. He’s forty three. And before you say it, it isn’t… some kind of syndrome. I know what you’re thinking. You know, like when you fall in love with your kidnapper. It’s not like that.
Stockhausen’s? he says, taken aback. That wasn’t what I was thinking.
Yeah, well, it isn’t Stockhausen’s.
It’s love, right?
Yeah, that’s exactly what it is. Love.
Now the surgeons are late. The midday wind rolls in and Ellen Hare, crossing the hospital car park to the waiting taxi, is reminded that winter is coming. Inside the light is low, the pumps suck and slide. The radio plays I don’t want to talk about it by Rod Stewart and Bill wonders how it is that all the songs you ever hear are about how hard it is to stop loving someone and never how impossible it can be to start. How you want to try but the fire won’t light, or maybe sometimes there is no way of really knowing yourself and your own desires and that is why Stephen Hopkins never realised what it was they had between them.
I’m glad I told you about PJ, the pretty nurse is saying. I’d kind of been keeping it a secret, but what was it you said? You can’t take it with you.
I did tell you that, didn’t I?
For an old guy you’re okay.
That bag thing could have happened to anyone. To tell you the truth the surgeons never put the tubes in far enough.
He says, But why a secret?
Oh, she says. Because people are so judgemental. It’s just jealousy, I know that, but it feels so ugly.
Groggily, Bill blinks at her. He flips what she is saying over in his mind, and over again and the thing she is saying feels heavy and smooth at the same time, like a ball bearing he can’t quite get a grip on.
I felt out of my depth at first, she says. I’m not saying I didn’t. But you don’t go anywhere if you’re standing still, that’s what PJ says.
He’s been lying there a while when suddenly Bill sees it coming, the dark side of the moon, and it’s coming so fast he can sense the air backing up, the fear of the astronauts as the lunar orbit pulls Apollo 8 into the shadow and there it is, one enormous mountain that the best minds in astrophysics hadn’t predicted. The Earth retreats at speed, so beautiful and so small. His mind won’t stop. What are you saying? he asks, squinting for her name badge. Ivy. Wait. Ivy. What are you saying? Did someone hurt you? Ivy. He waits for the impact. The mountain keeps coming.
But Ivy is called to attend to a faecal impaction and Bill Hare has been transferred to theatre by the time she returns to the ward.