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Excerpt

Excerpt

Something Like Happy

DAY 1

Make a new friend

“Excuse me?”

No answer. The receptionist carried on clacking the computer keys. Annie tried again. “Excuse me.” That was a level-two “excuse me”—above the one she’d give to tourists blocking the escalator and below the one reserved for some­one with their bag on a train seat. Nothing. “Sorry,” she said, taking it to level three (stealing your parking spot, bashing you with an umbrella, etc.). “Could you help me, please? I’ve been standing here for five minutes.”

The woman kept typing. “What?”

“I need to change the address on a patient file. I’ve already been sent to four different departments.”

The receptionist extended one hand, without looking up. Annie gave her the form. “This you?”

“Well, no.” Obviously.

“The patient has to change it for themselves.”

“Um, well, they can’t actually.” Which would be clear if anyone in the hospital ever bothered to read the files.

The form dropped onto the counter. “Can’t let another person change it. Data protection, see.”

“But…” Annie felt, suddenly and horribly, like she might cry. “I need to change it so letters come to my address! She can’t read them herself anymore! That’s why I’m here. Please! I—I just need it changed. I don’t understand how this can possibly be so difficult.”

“Sorry.” The receptionist sniffed, picked something off one of her nails.

Annie snatched the paper up. “Look, I’ve been in this hos­pital for ten hours now. I’ve been sent around from office to office. Patient Records. Neurology. Outpatients. Reception. Back to Neurology. And no one seems to have the slightest idea how to do this very simple task! I haven’t eaten. I haven’t showered. And I can’t go home unless you just open up your computer and type in a few lines. That’s all you have to do.”

The receptionist still wasn’t even looking at her. Clack, clack, clack. Annie felt it swell up in her—the anger, the pain, the frustration. “Will you listen to me?” She reached over and wrenched the computer around.

The woman’s eyebrows disappeared into her bouffant hair. “Madam, I’m going to have to call security if you don’t—”

“I just want you to look at me when I’m speaking. I just need you to help me. Please.” And then it was too late and she was definitely crying, her mouth suddenly filling with bit­ter salt. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I just—I really need to change the address.”

“Listen, madam…” The receptionist was swelling, her mouth opening, no doubt to tell Annie where to go. Then something odd happened. Instead, her face creased into a smile. “Hiya, P.”

“He-ey, everything okay here?”

Annie turned to see who was interrupting. In the doorway of the dingy hospital office was a tall woman in all shades of the rainbow. Red shoes. Purple tights. A yellow dress, the color of Sicilian lemons. A green beanie hat. Her amber jewelry glowed orange, and her eyes were a vivid blue. That array of color shouldn’t have worked, but somehow it did. She leaned toward Annie, touching her arm; Annie flinched. “So sorry, I don’t mean to jump in front of you. Just need to very, very quickly make an appointment.”

The receptionist was back clacking, this time with a jaunty beat. “Next week do ya?”

“Thanks, you’re a star. Sorry, I’ve totally queue-jumped!” The rainbow beamed at Annie again. “Is this lovely lady all sorted, Denise?”

No one had called Annie a lovely lady for a long time. She blinked the tears from her eyes, trying to sound firm. “Well, no, because apparently it’s too hard to just change a patient record. I’ve been to four different offices now.”

“Oh, Denise can do that for you. She has all the secrets of this hospital at her fabulous fingertips.” The woman mimed typing. There was a large bruise on the back of one hand, partly covered by taped-on cotton wool.

Denise was actually nodding, grudgingly. “All right, then. Give it here.”

Annie passed the form over. “Can you send care of me, please? Annie Hebden.” Denise typed, and within ten sec­onds, the thing Annie had waited for all day was done. “Um, thanks.”

“You’re welcome, madam,” said Denise, and Annie could feel her judgment. She’d been rude. She knew she’d been rude. It was just so frustrating, so difficult.

“Brill. Bye, missus.” The rainbow woman waved at De­nise, then grabbed Annie’s arm again. “Listen. I’m sorry you’re having a bad day.”

“I—what?”

“You seem like you’re having a really bad day.”

Annie was temporarily speechless. “I’m in the bloody hos­pital. Do you think anyone here’s having a good day?”

The woman looked around at the waiting room behind them—half the people on crutches, some with shaved heads and pale faces, a shrunken woman hunched in a wheelchair in a hospital gown, bored kids upending the contents of their mums’ bags while the mums mindlessly stabbed at phones. “No reason why not.”

Annie stepped back, angry. “Listen, thank you for your help—though I shouldn’t have needed it, this hospital is a disgrace—but you’ve no idea why I’m in here.”

“True.”

“So, I’m going now.”

The woman said, “Do you like cake?”

“What? Of cours e I—what?”

“Wait a sec.” She dashed away. Annie looked at Denise, who’d gone back to her blank-eyed keyboard stare. She counted to ten—annoyed at herself for even doing that—then shook her head and went out down the corridor, with its pal­ette of despair blue and bile green. Thank God she was finally done. She needed to go home, lose herself in the TV, hide under the duvet—

“Wait! Annie Hebden!”

Annie turned. The annoying woman was running down the corridor—well, more sort of shuffling, out of breath. She held a cupcake aloft, iced with wavy chocolate frosting. “For you,” she panted, thrusting it into Annie’s hand. Each of her nails was painted a different color.

Annie was speechless for the second time in five minutes. “Why?”

“Because. Cupcakes make everything a little better. Except for type 2 diabetes, I guess.”

“Uh…” Annie looked at the cake in her hand. Slightly squished. “Thank you?”

“That’s okay.” The woman licked some rogue frosting off her hand. “Ick, I hope I don’t get MRSA. Not that it would make much difference. I’m Polly, by the way. And you’re Annie.”

“Er. Yeah.”

“Have a good day, Annie Hebden. Or at least a slightly better one. Remember—if you want the rainbow, you have to put up with the rain.” And she waved, and skipped—was it the first time anyone had ever skipped down the Corridor of Doom?—out of sight.

Annie waited for the bus in the rain, that gray soupy rain that Lewisham seemed to specialize in. She thought what a stupid thing it was the woman had said. Rain didn’t always lead to rainbows. Usually it just led to soaked socks and your hair in rattails. But at least she had somewhere to go. A home­less man sat beneath the bus shelter, water dripping off his head and forming a puddle around his dirty trousers. Annie felt wretched for him, but what could she do? She couldn’t help him. She couldn’t even help herself.

When the bus came it was rammed, and she stood squeezed up between a buggy and a mound of shopping bags, buffeted by every turn.

Annie stared at her feet, which had left grimy marks on the wet floor of the bus, until she got to her stop.

How had her life come to this? she wondered. Losing it in public over a change of address? Weeping in front of strangers? Once it would have been her raising her eyebrows as some­one else had a meltdown. Offering tissues, and a soothing pat on the arm. She didn’t understand what had happened to that person. The one she used to be.

Sometimes it felt to Annie like her life had changed in the blink of an eye.

 

 

DAY 2

Smile at strangers

The doorbell was ringing. Annie woke up with a jerk, her heart shock-started. What was it? The police again, the am­bulance…but no, the worst had already happened. She sat up, registering that she’d fallen asleep on the sofa again, in the clothes she’d worn to the hospital. She couldn’t even remem­ber what she’d been watching on TV. Tattoo Fixers, maybe? She liked that. It was always comforting to see there were people who’d made worse decisions than she had.

Riiiinnnngg. She moved aside the blanket Costas must have laid over her. As she stood up, crumbs and tissues and a remote control fell out of her clothes. It was as if she’d come home drunk, but drunk on misery, on grief, on anger.

Riiiiinnnnnng! “All right!” Jesus. What time was it, any­way? The TV clock read 9:23 a.m. She had to hurry or she’d miss visiting hours. Costas would have left ages ago to do the breakfast shift, in and out without her even seeing him. A feeling of shame rolled over her —the Annie of two years ago would never have slept in her clothes.

“Annie Hebden! Are you in there?”

Annie winced. Through the door chain she could see a blur of jewel green—it was the strange woman from the hos­pital. Polly something.

“Er, yes?”

“I’ve got your hospital letter.” A hand appeared in the gap, this time with silver nails, and waved an envelope under An­nie’s nose. It had her name on it, but a different address. One in a nicer part of town. “You probably got mine,” said the woman cheerfully.

Annie looked at the pile of letters on the mat. Bills. A sub­scription to Gardening Monthly, which she really should have canceled by now. And a bright white envelope addressed to Polly Leonard. “How did that happen?”

“I guess Denise got mixed up when you changed the ad­dress. I called her to switch them around, no harm done.”

Was the hospital supposed to give out her address? “So you came all the way here, just to give me this?” It would have taken more than half an hour from Polly’s home in Green­wich to Annie’s in Lewisham, especially at rush hour.

“Sure. I’ve never been to this part of town before, so I thought why not?”

There were a million reasons why not. The area’s soaring crime rates. The monstrosity of its seventies shopping cen­ter. The fact they’d been digging up the heart of it for years now, creating a traffic-clogged hellhole full of thundering drills and melted tarmac.

“Well. Thanks for bringing it.” She stuck Polly’s letter out the gap. “Bye, then.”

Polly didn’t budge. “Are you going to the hospital today?”

Every instinct told Annie to lie, but for some reason she didn’t. “Oh, yeah. I will be, but—”

“Appointment?”

“Not exactly.” She didn’t feel up to explaining.

“I’m going in, too. I thought we could travel together.”

Annie had been known to stay in the office for an extra twenty minutes some days, just to be sure her colleagues were gone so she wouldn’t have to catch the bus with them. “I’m not dressed,” she said.

“That’s okay. I can wait.”

“But…but…” Annie’s stupid brain couldn’t think of a sin­gle reason not to let this annoying, overly colorful stranger into her home. “I guess…okay, then.”

“So this is your place.” Polly stood in Annie’s drab living room like a Christmas tree. Today, she wore what looked like an ankle-length cocktail dress in crème de menthe satin, and underneath it, biker boots. A fake fur jacket and a knitted hat completed the look. The hem of the dress was damp and dirty, as if she’d just walked through Lewisham in the rain. She looked like a model on an urban fashion shoot.

“I’m not allowed to decorate. Landlord won’t let me.” The tenth-floor flat still had its depressing laminate floorboards and seventies knobbly walls. It smelled of damp and other people’s cooking. “Um, I need to shower. Do you want—you want tea or anything?”

“That’s okay. I’ll just stay here and read or something.” She looked around at the shabby room, the laundry on the rack— Annie’s overwashed pants and leggings—which had dried all crispy.

“Well, okay. I won’t be long.”

Annie went into the bathroom—rusty mirror, moldering shower curtain—and wondered if she’d gone mad. There was a strange woman in her house and she was just letting it hap­pen. A woman she knew nothing about, who could be crazy, and quite likely was, judging by her clothes. Maybe that was why they’d met in the neurological department. Maybe she’d had a blow to the head and it had turned her into a person with no boundaries, who came to your flat and read your depressing private pamphlets.

Annie had the world’s quickest wash, what her mum would have called a lick and a polish. For many months after her life fell apart, the shower used to be the place she cried, her fist stuffed in her mouth to muffle the sound. But there was no time for that today, so she threw on a near-identical outfit to the one she’d worn yesterday. No point in looking nice. Not for a place where people were either dying, or wished they were.

On her way out—no makeup, wet hair bundled up—Annie put her coat on, as passive-aggressively as she could. “I’ll be late.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, the bus will now stop to change drivers. It will take, er…we don’t know.”

The bus filled with a gust of sighs. “I’ll definitely be late now,” Annie muttered to herself.

“Bloody wasters,” grumbled an elderly man behind her who was wearing a hairy suit that smelled strongly of damp. “Two pound a journey for this. Lining their pockets, they are.”

Polly said, “Well, it gives us a chance to look around.” Annie and the man exchanged a quick incredulous glance. The view out the window was of a large Tesco and a patch of waste ground with a burned-out car on it. “Or chat,” Polly went on. “Where are you off to, sir?”

“Funeral,” he grunted, leaning on his stick.

“I’m sorry. Friend of yours?”

Annie shrank into her seat. A man in paint-stained jeans was already rolling his eyes. What if people thought she was with the woman who talked on the bus? The most dangerous London pest, worse that urban foxes or Japanese knotweed.

“Me old mucker Jimmy. Had good innings, though. Fighter pilot in the Blitz, he was.”

“Oh, how fascinating. How did you meet?”

A woman in a headscarf removed one earbud and tutted loudly. Annie cringed.

“Grew up on the same street. Old Bermondsey. He was RAF, I was navy. I could tell you a thing or two, love.” He gave an emphysemic chuckle. Annie picked up an abandoned Metro and began to ostentatiously read about gangland stab­bings, as the old man droned on.

“And then Jimmy, he ’id in the wardrobe till ’er ’usband nodded off, then he nipped out the window…”

“This is so sad,” Annie said pointedly, waving the paper. “Three stabbings this month alone.”

“Bunch of ’oodlums,” said the old man. “Jimmy and me were the terror of the streets but we never did no stabbings. A punch in the face—now, that’s civilized. Gentlemanly.”

Annie closed her eyes: she could not endure another second of this. Luckily, the bus started to move, and Mate-of-Jimmy’s got off at the next stop, seizing Polly’s hand and planting a wet kiss on it. “Nice speaking to you, young lady.”

“I’ve got some hand sanitizer,” offered Annie.  

Polly laughed. “He’ll probably outlive me.”

Annie raised her paper again. Everyone else on the bus had headphones in, like decent people. Only Polly insisted on star­ing around her, waving at babies and dogs, making eye con­tact all over the show. If she carried on like that, there was a good chance they’d be arrested by the London Transport Police and not even make the hospital.

 

But they did make it. The homeless man was still sitting by the bus shelter, and Annie wondered if he’d been there all night. His head was bowed. Polly hunkered down to him, as Annie cringed again and stared off into the distance. “Hello. What’s your name? I’m Polly.”

He glanced up slowly, clearing his throat. His voice was like sandpaper. “Jonny.”

“Is there anything I can bring you when I come out? Hot drink?”

Annie was blushing on Polly’s behalf. Wasn’t it patroniz­ing, to offer a hot drink instead of cash? He looked surprised. “A coffee would be nice. Anything hot, really.”

“Sugar?”

“Eh, two, please. Cheers.”

“See you a bit later, then. I’ve got to go in there now.”

“Oh. Good luck.”

Annie was already walking off, deathly embarrassed. Once inside, she did her best to shake Polly off. “I’m going this way, so—”

“Me, too. Good old Neurology.” Polly tucked her fur-clad arm through Annie’s. “It’s the best department. I mean, it’s your brain. Everything you are is in there. Much better than stupid hearts or legs, or the worst, dermatology.”

“Yeah,” Annie said with heavy sarcasm. “It’s great when your brain starts turning to mush in your head.” They’d stopped outside the inpatient ward. “Well, I need to go in there.”

“Okay.” Polly didn’t move.

“I mean, only one person’s allowed at a time. So I better just…” Why wouldn’t she go? If she didn’t leave soon, then she might see—

“Hello. Hello!”

Annie flinched at the high, nervous voice of the woman tottering toward them in a hospital gown. She was point­ing a bony finger at Annie. “You. Miss. Are you the nurse?”

“So sad,” murmured Polly. “Can we help you, madam?”

Annie tried to block Polly off. “I don’t think we should—”

“I’m looking for the nurse.” The woman was barely sixty, but looked eighty. Her face was sunken, her hair gray, and under her hospital gown her legs were bruised and wasted, one wrapped in a bandage. “I need—oh, I don’t know what I need!”

“I’m sure it’ll come to you. Shall we go into the ward?” Polly was taking her arm, which was mottled with scars that never seemed to heal.

“I don’t think you should do that.” Annie wanted to scream.

“Oh, come on, Annie, she needs help.”

“Just leave it, will you?” snapped Annie. “Go to your own bloody appointment!”

The woman was staring at her. “You. I know you, don’t I? Are you the nurse?”

“I, uh…” Annie’s voice was dead in her throat. Polly was staring, too, her forehead wrinkled. “No, I’m—”

At that point a harassed-looking nurse dashed out from the ward. “Maureen! Come on, back to bed now. You can’t walk on that leg.”

But she wouldn’t leave. She was still staring at Annie. “I know you. I know you!”

Too late to pretend. “Yes. It’s me, Mum. It’s Annie. I was just coming to see you.”

Charity—one of the nicer nurses, even if she did insist on praying over the patients—gave Annie a sympathetic look. “Come on now, Maureen. Your daughter will be in to see you soon.”

As the ward doors swung shut, Polly looked at Annie. “That’s why you were here? You’re not sick yourself?”

“No. Mum, she—well, she has dementia. Early onset. She had a fall at the weekend, trying to get a chip pan out of the cupboard. Even though she hasn’t had a chip pan since 2007. But they’ll probably discharge her soon and then—I don’t know what then.” Annie took a deep breath.

Polly’s expression hadn’t changed. Interest, understand­ing, but no pity. “I guess that explains your attitude of barely suppressed fury.”

Something broke inside Annie. “Look. I don’t know you, and you’ve got no right to say that. My mum’s not even sixty and she has advanced dementia. Why wouldn’t I be furious? I should be furious. So why don’t you just butt out of my life, okay? What gives you the right to…to…come to my house, and interfere and…” The rest was drowned in sudden, in­convenient tears.

Polly reacted strangely to this tirade, which left Annie gasping for breath. “Come with me,” Polly said, grasping her hand. Hers was cold, but surprisingly strong. She dragged Annie down the corridor.

“What? No, I don’t want to— Let go of me!”

“Come on. I want to show you something.” They’d reached a door with a sign on it that read Dr. Maximilian Fraser, MD FRS. Consultant Neurologist. Underneath it someone had Blu-Tacked up a sign in green ink: No, I Am Not a Supplies Cupboard. Polly threw open the door. “Dr. McGrumpy! It’s your favorite patient.”

A voice from the dark said, “Come in, Polly. It’s not like I’m in the middle of a highly confidential patient review or anything.”

“You’re eating a Crunchie and watching cat videos on YouTube,” said Polly, which was true. The room was tiny and gloomy—not much bigger than a cupboard, in fact— and one wall was covered in dark glass. Behind a computer sat a burly man in scrubs, his thick dark hair sticking up as if he’d been running his hands through it, several days’ worth of stubble on his chin.

“What do you want now?” He had a Scottish accent. Annie saw his eyes rest on her, so she looked at her feet in their shabby black loafers.

“I want to show the scan to my new friend Annie.”

“Not again. Do you think I’ve nothing else to do, is that it? You think hospital funding is so luxuriant I’m basically your personal AV monkey?”

“Come on. You know I’m your best patient.”

He’s my best patient. No hassle.” Annie saw he was nod­ding to a glass jar that held a floating human brain. “Go on, then.” He sighed. He clicked his computer and the wall screen glowed into life, revealing another brain, the ghostly image of one this time. White, spongy. One side of it was darker, tendrils of black curling through it.

“That’s my brain,” Polly said proudly.

“Oh,” Annie said, not sure what she was seeing.

Polly went over and tapped the glass. “Fingerprints,” grunted the doctor. She ignored him.

“That’s my tree. Glioblastoma—it means ‘branches,’ see.”

Annie looked at the doctor for guidance. “No one knows what that word means, Polly,” he said.

“Well, let me explain. That’s my brain, and this lovely treelike growth here—well, that’s my brain tumor.” Polly smiled. “I call it Bob.”

 

“Take deep breaths.”

Annie sucked in air. She was sitting on the doctor’s wheely chair. He was kneeling in front of her, peering into her eyes. His were brown and intelligent, like a kind dog. “Can you follow this?” He held up a finger.

“Of course I can,” she said irritably. “I’m fine. I didn’t even faint.” She didn’t understand why she’d freaked out. She barely knew Polly, brain tumor or not.

Polly had gone to get “hot sweet tea,” as she’d brightly an­nounced. “Isn’t that what they did in the war?”

The doctor said, “You didn’t know, I take it. You never wondered why she’d so many appointments?”

“We only met yesterday. And she’s acting like we’re, I don’t know, teenage pen pals.”

“That’s Polly. It’s quite hard to avoid being friends with her.” His accent rolled hard on the r’s. He sat back on his heels.

“So…she’s sick.”

“Very sick.”

“Can you…do anything?”

He stood up again, wincing. “Christ, I’m getting old. I shouldn’t really tell you. Confidentiality. But since you just saw her brain scan I guess I can take that as patient consent. Because of where Bob is, there’s a strong chance removal would damage her brain.” Annie remembered what Polly had said. About the brain being everything we are. “She’s had chemo, which bought a bit of time. We’re keeping an eye on it. Lots of MRI scans. Costing a bloody fortune. If it goes near the front cortex, well, that’s game over, and it’s very aggressive. Quite advanced already.”

“If?”

“When.”

“How long?” she asked.

He scrunched up his face. “For the record, doctors really hate that question. We’re not clairvoyants. But we’ve told her about three months.”

Annie gaped. So little. An academic term. A financial quar­ter. A season of an American TV show. Imagine if that was all you had, to cram a whole life into. “Oh,” she said. In the circumstances, it was all she could think of.

The door banged—“Don’t bring the bloody house down!” he shouted—and Polly came in with a paper cup.

“Whoops!” She spilled some, licking her hand. “Here, drink this.” Annie peered into the cup. It looked disgusting, like soapy dishwater. Suddenly it was overwhelming: the tiny dark room and the strange woman with the tumor, and her own mother in the ward nearby, with her brain also dying inside her. Annie stood up, her head swimming.

“I’m sorry… I’m really sorry, but I can’t do this. I’m sorry you’re ill, Polly. I really am. But I need to go.” And she rushed out, slopping the tea onto the floor as she went.

Copyright © 2017 by Claire McGowan

Something Like Happy
by by Eva Woods

  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Graydon House
  • ISBN-10: 1525811355
  • ISBN-13: 9781525811357