I wrote this short story in 2013 and it was nominated for an Irish Smedia Award for Best Short Story. This is the first time it has been published online.
Nothing prepares you for it. I sat unwillingly in front of a mirror as the quick fingers of medical staff pulled away my bandages. My eyes darted to the cracked ceiling and stayed there, not daring to glance at my newly bare chest. My hands shook and clutched at the soft comfort of the blanket I’d been sleeping under.
I was thinking of anything that would distract me; the cool mint colour of the wall which was no doubt painted in an attempt to calm patients like me, the distant sounds of phones ringing with nurses too busy to answer them, the stray hair that had fallen on my face and how I couldn’t bat it away without raising a hand.
I could tell the nurses were staring at me now; with that look. The sympathetic stare they tried to hide so well under a fake smile that fooled others, like the elderly. But I was not old, I was a young woman and I knew that there was nothing to be smiling about.
One of the assembled nurses scratched her cheek gently, a habit she had recently picked up that was a tell-tale sign she wanted to speak. The other one, a stocky woman with several chins, put her meaty hand on my rail thin shoulder in what she seemingly thought was a comforting pat. The first to break the silence, she said, “Helen, it’s been a few days now. You must try to look.”
Her words provoked swift, confident responses in the other with a tirade of comments exclaiming how beautiful and brave I was. In my eyes I was neither, and although I knew I had to face reality at some point, I was in no way ready.
I sighed softly, swallowing sobs that left a hard, hot pressure behind my eyes and braced myself. I opened my eyes to face a hand mirror and light tears ran down my cheeks. I was hideous. Ugly, red scars were all I could see. It didn’t matter that I had a slim body that most women would envy. All I could see was the barren, puckered skin that used to be my breasts. Intense feelings of grief washed over me and I crossed my arms over my chest, my hands gripping my shoulders so hard the nails dug painfully into my skin. I curled up into a ball on the dull bed and stayed there, crying into blankets that smelt faintly of disinfectant with my eyes shut tight.
It’s hard to tell how long I lay there, or when the nurses left the room. I blinked and rubbed my puffy eyes. It was chilly and I reached for my dressing gown; a pink, fluffy monstrosity that my mother had dropped in for me. I pulled it around my tiny frame, making sure I didn’t look down. I sat back on the hospital bed, with its uncomfortable plastic pillows and itchy sheets.
The doctors said that it saved me. Removing my breasts. I hadn’t even thought of the c-word since I was wheeled out of surgery. It was as though it was on the back burner of my mind because I couldn’t see it. Because the evidence had been hidden behind tightly wound bandages. Now, I was bare. And all I could see were the red etchings across my sunken chest. They screamed ‘cancer’. Sick. Ugly. Broken.
I was told the doctors did a great job, that it was neat and the scars would fade to a dull silver. That didn’t matter to me; the scars I saw morphed from small incisions into large, raw wounds that made me look and feel like a burn victim. Tears gathered in my lashes and I blinked them away.
They called me a fighter. They said that I was a survivor. People cooed at how brave I was and how strong I had to be to ‘fight’ this. I didn’t feel like I was fighting anything. I felt like a scared little girl.
I pulled on my slippers and walked over to the window. I was glad I had a private room; it was hard enough keeping things together when I was on my own let alone having some other patient watch me mid-meltdown.
The car park was quiet. Today was a slow day but people still walked in and out of the hospital at a steady pace. One would get out of a taxi, walk into reception and then leave, and then another car would arrive, repeating the process. Sometimes someone would go in and they wouldn’t appear again.
I rubbed my hands together briskly, trying to generate some heat. They said they’d be taking me to a psychiatrist later. I wondered what we’d talk about. Maybe it would be like how it’s portrayed in the movies, where the patient lies down on a leather chair and the psychiatrist sneaks off for lunch while the patient is talking. I don’t think I’d mind that. It’s hard for me to open up about how I’m feeling so a lazy psychiatrist not doing their job would suit me fine.
How would I even begin to explain how I’m feeling anyway? How is some random stranger going to understand how I don’t feel like a woman anymore, how I hate the sight of myself and how pathetic I feel for being so weak about it all? How angry I am that this happened to me.
I knew that I’d be able to get my breasts fixed soon; that they’d make me new ones and nobody would be able to tell, maybe not even me after time had passed. But they weren’t fixed now. I wasn’t womanly and beautiful now.
I remembered when I’d been given the results of the tests. I had thought it was a blocked oil gland and so did the doctors, because of my age. I had been in college when my phone rang. Expecting results, but certainly not the ones I was given, I answered after dashing out of a class. That one crystallising moment stayed with me; it was as if I had been floating by the ceiling, looking down on myself hearing the news and watching my own terror-stricken face. And then the long walk back to the classroom, shocked, and sitting back down to listen to a lecture that suddenly seemed so laughably unimportant.
A nurse came into the room and I turned from the window to look at her. She urged me to go for a walk, to stretch my legs. As if I couldn’t stretch them in here, it was a big enough room. I walked out all the same, my old tattered slippers scuffing the lino in the corridor. Large squares dominated the floor’s pattern that reminded me of my old school days. I remembered a game my classmates and I played, where you had to step in the middle of the square without touching the cracks, as that was where the lava was. I was always careful to avoid the lava.
I passed a bald woman with an IV; her bony frame looked fragile, her face was haggard and she had a familiar dead pan look in her eyes. I looked back at her as I walked with my hands in my pockets. I heard body-jolting coughs from the room to the right, and the beds in there were occupied by people who looked the same as the woman with the IV. They all looked so similar. Small, shrunken, ghostly white people with pain etched on their faces. Tears pricked at my eyes and I walked on quickly, glad that I wasn’t one of them.
Feeling fresh air would be better than a walk in a ward filled with the sick and the dying, so I left and pottered down the stairs to a grassy clearing outside that was once reserved for smokers. I sat on the only free bench and shut my eyes, breathing deeply. I knew I wouldn’t die now, that the surgery had saved my life, though I couldn’t help but feel like I was wilting, that I would never be the confident woman I had once been.
A light rain began drizzling down and I turned my face up to the sky, closing my eyes and savouring the cool, clean feeling. The rain evolved from light and pleasant to a steady downpour and hospital staff and visitors ran for the doors to avoid getting wet. I stood up and blindly walked onto the moist grass, feeling the water soak through my cloth slippers. I stretched my arms out as the rain beat down on me, my hair stuck to my head and my tears invisible next to the rain on my face. I was the only person left in the clearing and I bared my teeth and smiled wide, spinning around and around and waving my arms up at the sky.
I heard someone call my name but I ignored them. For the first time in months, I felt alive. The rain was so heavy the buildings seemed blurry; the whole world seemed to melt away and it was only me there, reaching towards the sky and being cleansed of all my fears. I could feel my skin drenched and cold, my dressing gown sticking to my body, the feeling of grass between my toes as I kicked my slippers off and the cool relief of the rain hitting my scars through my open gown. I was alive.