‘Your mother’s an ironmonger.’
‘She is not.’ The word was new to me, but from the way Genevieve said it, I knew it was something you didn’t want your mother to be.
‘She is so. My mother says your mother’s an ironmonger.’
The way I saw it, I had three choices. Pretend I didn’t care. Say, ‘I’m not going to play with you anymore’, and march home to my grandma’s. Or launch myself at Genevieve, and roll her face down in the sand.
It was the last of these that appealed. I was as big as her even though she was exactly eight months older; I stood a good chance of success. But Genevieve must have read my intention. She said quickly, ‘It means someone who has a hardware shop, silly. What did you think it meant?’ Which left me with all that surging adrenalin and nothing to do with it. And with the humiliation of knowing that once again Genevieve had managed to exert her superiority – the fact that she had eight months’ more wisdom than me, and I was never, ever, going to catch up.
She’s my last patient of the day, and I’m running late. As I stand at the door of the waiting room, my mind is divided between my last case – poor old Molly Phelps and her arthritis – and what to feed the family tonight. I call the name on the print-out without really seeing it – ‘Genevieve McCormack’. A woman of about my own age comes forward. It’s not until we’re both seated in my consulting room that the name makes itself felt in my consciousness.
Genevieve. When did I last address someone by that name? Twenty-five years ago, surely. Those wide-apart blue eyes in the heart-shaped face, the wide mouth with its delicately curved upper lip, surely I recognise them. But a lot can change between twelve and thirty-seven in a face and in a memory of a face. And in a name. The Genevieve I knew was Genevieve Drayton. The left hand lying in her lap is bare of rings. So, was there a McCormack spouse, now over and done with? Or is this someone else?
All this zips through my mind in the time it takes for me to say I’m sorry she’s been kept waiting. She shows no sign of recognising me. But why would she? She knew me as Jess Brown, not as Dr Jessica Singh.
I glance at her record. She’s been to this practice only once before, to renew a prescription for the pill. With luck, that’s all she’ll want this time. But she says, ‘There’s this thing on my back. It’s probably nothing.’
‘Let’s have a look.’ I get her to strip right down, so I can do a full skin check. While she’s doing that, I scroll through her file.
There’s not much – no records forwarded from any other practice. But there’s her date of birth, the twenty-third of April. That clinches it, surely. ‘My birthday’s the same as William Shakespeare’s’, Genevieve told me more than once. ‘What’s yours?’ So far as I knew, the twenty-third of December was nobody’s birthday except mine.
It’s when I look at her bared back that I know for certain. The big right-angled scar below her left shoulder blade is unmistakable.
‘It’s where I got stabbed in the back’, she told me that first summer. ‘These robbers snuck into our house in the middle of the night and stabbed me, and they were going to kidnap me, only my father came and tied them up and got the police to take them away, and they were sent to prison for fifty years.’
It’s odd how, if you believe something when you’re very young, you can go on believing it, out of habit, long after you’re old enough to know better. I must have been ten before it occurred to me to doubt that tale. The factual version was almost as unlikely: Genevieve had been running with a glass jug; she stumbled and dropped it, then fell backwards onto the broken shards. No one but Genevieve could fall backwards onto something they’d been carrying in front of them.
The lesion she’s concerned about is just below the scar. It’s pink, slightly raised, not very big. ‘How long have you had it?’
‘I don’t know. My boyfriend noticed it a couple of weeks ago.’
Boyfriend. So, no more Mr McCormack? I check the rest of her without finding anything else. She has been pregnant at some time. There’s a scar on her lower abdomen, too small for a Caesarean. Hysterectomy? Her breasts are bigger than when I last saw them, that final summer. ‘My mother says they’re like two lilies.’ I thought they looked more like lemons, though I managed not to say so. ‘And yours haven’t even started yet.’ This was not quite true; I could feel two little lumps, but I didn’t say that either. At twelve, I was beginning to learn the wisdom of reticence.
Now I tell her, ‘I don’t think it’s anything to get too worried about, but it would be a good idea to remove it. I can do it myself, or I can refer you to a plastic surgeon if you’re worried about a scar.’
She opts to have me do it. ‘I’ve already got one scar on my back, so another won’t matter.’
That’s my cue, if I want to take it. To say, I recognise that scar; I recognise you. But it’s late, and maybe it’s best to keep the relationship on a formal footing. Or will I raise the subject while I’m snipping and stitching, with a nurse present as a disinterested party?
I don’t remember exactly how we first met, Genevieve and I. It must have been on the beach, the year we were both seven. What brought us together at first was simply that there was no one else to play with at the Bay. All the other children were too old or too young or the wrong sex.
Every summer we would come, my mother and I, to Grandma’s house at the Bay, in time for Christmas. Home was an hour inland, in a town just big enough to support Mum’s hardware shop, and after New Year, Mum would have to return there, leaving me with Grandma for the rest of the holidays. A month now is no time, but when I was six and seven, January seemed to stretch forever. I missed my school friends. I even missed school.
‘What school do you go to?’ I asked Genevieve that first year.
‘I don’t go to school.’ She said it the way she might have said I don’t play in the mud.
I was shocked. ‘You have to go to school. The police will come and make you.’
‘No they won’t, stupid, because my mother’s home-schooling me.’
I’d begun to learn by then not to show my ignorance, so I waited and asked Grandma – not that her reply was enlightening. ‘Hmph! Just what I’d expect from that woman.’ Though Grandma generally had as little as possible to do with the summer visitors, she had brought herself to consult with Mrs Drayton over sharing supervisory duties. ‘Full of high-falutin’ ideas. Lord knows what she’s teaching that child.’
Whatever the deficiencies in Genevieve’s education, she had learned to love books. That very soon became the glue between us. We read books together; we acted out their stories; we lent books to each other. ‘Oh, dear, Enid Blyton!’ Mrs Drayton said when she saw my first offerings. ‘Well, I suppose it is the holidays.’
We were neither of us sporty types. If we ventured to the end of the bay where the rocks were, it was because they were ruined castles or towering mountains. Other children ran across them, leaping from one to another like mountain goats. We merely tended imaginary goats there because Genevieve was Heidi and I was Peter the goatherd. It’s true that we did occasionally play ball, but only with the huge beach ball I’d been given for Christmas, tossing it back and forth. It was so big that even I found it impossible to miss, but Genevieve managed to drop it. Maybe that was part of the attraction for me: she was the one child I’d met who was more physically inept than I was.
The day Genevieve is scheduled for the excision, I’m running late again. By the time I enter the treatment room, the nurse already has her prone on the table with her back exposed and the dish of implements – my ironmongery – laid out beside her. I can’t broach the subject of her identity when she’s like that. So, I go about it with only a few pleasantries and the necessary exchanges: ‘This will sting a bit’, when I inject the local and ‘Tell me if you can feel anything’, as I make my first cut into her flesh. How many times, long ago, did her words sting me? And how many times did I feel sympathy for those mythical robbers who plunged a knife into her back?
I like doing minor surgery; I’m good at it. Hopeless at catching a ball, when it comes to flesh, my fingers are skilful. When I’ve put the sutures in, I show her the tissue I’ve cut out, drifting in its container of formalin. It doesn’t look much. ‘We’ll have the lab results for you when you come to have the stitches removed.’ Then I leave her with the nurse and hurry off to my next case. See, Genevieve, these days I’m the one with the power.
It always struck me as particularly unfair that, on the one topic about which I knew more than Genevieve, I wasn’t allowed to enlighten her.
‘I wonder how much he cost’, she remarked one day during our second summer.
‘Who?’ We were in Grandma’s garden, in the grape arbour, idly picking and eating. Inside the house, Grandma was entertaining a neighbour with a new baby.
‘The baby. Do you reckon boys are less expensive than girls? I cost three hundred and thirty dollars. What did you cost?’
‘Um, I don’t know. Nothing, I don’t think.’
‘Nothing! Why not?’ But I had popped several grapes into my mouth, so I didn’t have to answer. I’d never met a child who didn’t know where babies came from, even if some were hazy about the details. My mother had recently filled me in on the whole process, with one strict injunction – I was not to enlighten anyone else.
‘I was wearing a pink silk dress’, said Genevieve, ‘and a pink bonnet and pink satin booties. What about you?’
I was tempted to invent a costume. But I had a certain pride. Okay, I couldn’t tell her the truth, the whole truth, about babies, but I wasn’t going to lie.
‘I wasn’t wearing anything.’
She kept returning to the topic in the following days and weeks, each time adding details to her natal costume – embroidered rosebuds, pearl buttons, a gold necklace. It was a relief the following year when she announced, as casually as if she’d always known it, that she’d been born at 11am in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and weighed nine pounds, two ounces. Of course I’d been born at the uncivilised hour of 2am and had weighed only seven pounds.
There’s been some hold-up with the lab results, so it’s not until the morning of Genevieve’s return visit that I see the report. This time, there’s no question of discussing our old acquaintance. She’s going to have enough to take in.
‘Melanoma! But it was pale; I could see it in the mirror.’
‘They don’t have to be brown. The pink ones are rarer, that’s all.’ She doesn’t answer. Her hands are gripping and ungripping each other, and she’s biting her lip. ‘It’s not such bad news’, I tell her. ‘There are plenty of people walking around alive and well who’ve had melanomas in the past.’ And plenty underground too, but I don’t say that.
She says, ‘My father died of melanoma.’
‘Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.’ Which is maybe an odd response from someone who supposedly never met the man, but she’s in no state to notice. I get her to take off her shirt and turn her back while I take out the stitches. I must be hurting her, but she doesn’t flinch.
I never saw much of Genevieve’s father; he hardly seemed to leave their holiday unit. He was writing a book, Genevieve said. He was tall and eerily pallid, with white skin, hair so blond it seemed transparent and light blue eyes.
Genevieve was lucky; she’d inherited her mother’s stronger colouring, and her skin tanned to a light golden-brown. I was the one who burned, in spite of my dark hair and eyes. I had to be smeared with sunscreen, wear a hat that was forever blowing off, and put my clothes on as soon as I came out of the water, while Genevieve capered around, bareheaded, in her latest swimsuit. ‘You should be called Jessica Pink, not Jessica Brown’, she taunted. ‘Jessica Red. Jessica Lobster.’
Now she’s reaping her reward. When the stitches are out, I explain that I will refer her to a specialist, that he may want to cut out more tissue, ‘just to be sure, though the lab report looks good’ – which is the truth but not the whole truth. ‘You’ll be his patient for this condition, but you’re welcome to come back to me if you have any concerns.’
She says, ‘Right, thanks’, vaguely, and I doubt if she’ll take me up on that. On the whole, I hope she won’t.
Maybe one of the reasons I chose medicine as a career was the number of death scenes I took part in, the summers I was ten and eleven. Sometimes I was the expiring soul and sometimes one or more of the grieving bystanders, depending on which part appealed less to Genevieve. When we played Little Women, Genevieve was Jo, and I was Meg, Beth and Amy – but mostly soppy dying Beth – whereas when we did Seven Little Australians, Genevieve insisted on being feisty Judy, killed saving her baby brother, even though I pointed out that Judy had dark hair like mine.
We had discovered poetry by then. Genevieve was of course the Lady of Shallot while I had to be content with a cameo appearance as Sir Lancelot. ‘His coal-black curls’, Genevieve quoted. ‘That’s got to be you, Jess.’ When it came to The Highwayman, I dug in my heels. I was determined to be Bess, the heroine who sacrificed herself to save her lover.
‘Bess, the landlord’s daughter’, I quoted, ‘plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.’ We had both persuaded our mothers to let us grow our hair over the preceding winter, but only mine might qualify as sweet black waves in the moonlight. Genevieve’s was, so she claimed, golden. (‘Mouse, I’d call it’, said Grandma.)
It was probably the allure of the dashing highwayman, rather than the argument of the hair, that made Genevieve agree. She managed to inject a little sting though, by quoting the line wrongly every time. ‘Jess, the landlord’s daughter’, she’d say with a little smile, as if implying You’re not really her.
Am I being unfair? True to the old cliche, when I remember those summers, the weather is always sunny; am I doing the reverse when I remember our relationship, recalling only the stormy times? I must have valued her companionship. We wrote to each other over the months we were apart. I looked forward, every year, to her return.
Two months after I’ve referred her to the specialist, Genevieve is back in my consulting room. ‘I need a certificate for time off work. I’ve got this awful cold.’
I inspect her reddened throat and agree.
‘Can you give me antibiotics to clear it up quickly? I can’t afford to take too much time off.’
I wonder what sort of work she does. But I don’t ask. I tell her there’s no point in prescribing antibiotics for a virus infection. She looks dubious but doesn’t argue.
Six weeks later, she’s back. ‘I should have had antibiotics for that cold. I’ve had this bad cough ever since.’
I listen to the cough. Peer down her throat. Listen to her chest, front and back, sliding the stethoscope over the old scar and the new. She’s lost weight.
‘Are you sure it started when you had the cold?’
‘Yes. Well. Pretty well.’ I’m reminded of the old Genevieve wriggling out of one of her fantastic tales without admitting she made it up. ‘I thought the cold was better, but then the cough started. I guess the infection got into my chest.’
‘Possibly. We’d better have an X-ray to make sure.’
She argues. X-rays are bad for you. She can’t afford the cost. Or the time. I know what she is afraid of. I insist.
Two days later, I give her the results. There are shadows throughout her lungs. Almost certainly spread from the melanoma.
‘But it could be something else’, she pleads. ‘It could it be TB?’
I’m tempted to agree; let someone else pronounce the final sentence. But she’s no longer an eight-year-old, to have the truth withheld from her.
So, I tell her TB is unlikely, but the specialist will do more tests. ‘And he’ll talk to you about treatment.’
‘Chemotherapy?’ It’s a whisper.
‘Possibly. It might not be as bad as when your father was having treatment. These days we have better drugs to control nausea.’
She says, absently, ‘I wasn’t here when he was having it. I was overseas.’
‘Oh.’ And though it’s of doubtful relevance, I ask, ‘Is your mother still alive?’
‘No. She died when I was thirteen.’
That hits me right in the belly. For a moment we are both silent, wrestling with unwelcome news. I have a sudden image of her going back, alone with her burden, to an empty house.
‘Do you have someone to support you? Someone who lives with you?’
‘Not anymore. My boyfriend walked out when I got the melanoma. Said he couldn’t cope with the stress.’ There’s the old Genevieve scorn in her voice, and I don’t blame her.
‘Do you have children?’
Why am I asking all this? What am I going to do? Say, I’m your old friend Jess; I’ll support you? I’ve got a husband and three children, a full-time career. And a roomful of patients waiting. All I can do is ask if she’d like to be referred to a counsellor.
‘No thanks. I’ve got some good friends. They’ll help.’
I tell her I’m glad of that. Then I send her on her way.
The winter I was coming up to twelve, we both discovered the Brontës. I was looking forward to acting them, even though I guessed I would have to be Heathcliff and probably Mr Rochester too.
But when January came, the spark had gone out of our plays. We weren’t Cathy and Heathcliff; we were two girls spouting lines out of a book. I would have kept trying, but Genevieve wasn’t interested. She wanted to show me her new breasts. And, inexplicably, she wanted to hang around where the new causeway was being built to the Island.
Until then it had only been possible to get to the Island by hopping from rock to rock at low tide, something Genevieve and I had never attempted. Now a causeway was under construction, with large rock-moving machines and dust and noise and men in hard hats. And always a crowd of boys watching, from small boys to some older than we were. It took me a while to realise that these were what Genevieve was interested in.
Several boys from my town were staying at the Bay that year. One of them said hello to me one day as we stood watching concrete being poured. I said ‘Hi, Ben’ back, and Genevieve stared at me.
‘Do you know him?’
‘He’s in my class at school. He’s okay.’ By which I meant he was cleaner and quieter than average.
‘Do you know any of the others?’
‘Sure. That one with Ben is James.’ They were both our age but looked younger as boys do. ‘And that one over by the post is called Berry. He started high school last year.’
Genevieve looked. Berry was tall, with dark curls and a red, wet-looking mouth. ‘You could introduce us.’
Introduce? It sounded like one of our books. ‘I don’t actually know him. He was just someone at school.’
From then on, all that January, we stalked Berry. Once, at Genevieve’s insistence, I did introduce them – that is, as we ‘happened’ to stroll past him, I managed to say, ‘Hi Berry’, and when he glanced in our direction, ‘This is Genevieve; she’s here for the holidays.’
He didn’t answer, but Genevieve claimed to me afterwards, ‘The way he looked at me turned my heart to water.’
The causeway was finished at the end of January. There was an official opening, after which the populace would be invited to take an inaugural stroll along it. Genevieve and I stood at the back of the crowd, strategically placed so that we could gaze at Berry’s back.
When the speeches were over, the crowd stirred, and Berry turned and spotted us. To my amazement, he came towards us.
‘Hold me, Jess’, gasped Genevieve. ‘I think I’m going to swoon.’
But Berry ignored Genevieve. ‘Jess. Come to the Island with me?’
I went. I wouldn’t have known how to refuse. But – be honest – I didn’t want to refuse, even though I didn’t much like him. We went and left Genevieve standing there alone. We walked with everyone else out to the Island, stood with everyone else watching the waves. On the way back we held hands. His hand felt limp and moist.
Genevieve wasn’t there when we got back. She wasn’t at the beach next day, and I didn’t go looking for her at her unit. The day after that, on schedule, I went home.
I didn’t write, but I did send her a birthday card in April. There was no reply. No birthday card for me in December, and no Christmas card to me and Grandma, though I had sent one as usual, ‘to Mr and Mrs Drayton and Genevieve.’ Probably by that time, Mrs Drayton was dead. But how could I have known?
That summer, instead of going to Grandma’s, I stayed home and helped my mother in the shop. Became, temporarily, an ironmonger.
I have no further involvement in Genevieve’s treatment. Nevertheless, I follow the course of her disease. None of the news is good. The tumour has spread widely; it isn’t responding to treatment. It’s not many months before I learn she’s in hospital, then in a hospice for the dying.
The staff there know me, but I tell them this is a personal visit. ‘She’s an old friend.’
I’ve seen many terminal patients; I should be used to it. She’s so thin I doubt if she weighs as much as she did that first summer. I could knock her down onto the sand easily enough now. I’m not sure whether she recognises me. The few words she utters seem random – scrambled either by opiates or by the spread of melanoma to her brain.
I’m never going to hear from her how her mother died. Or why she was overseas when her father died, or where, or whether that was where she met the unknown Mr McCormack. I’ll never know what happened to the child she once carried. I know nothing about her except how she spent six summers of her childhood.
I hold her hand for a short time then get up to leave.
Her lips move – those prettily curved lips now crusted and peeling.
‘Jess’, she murmurs. ‘Jess, the landlord’s daughter.’
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