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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Promise

Paphos Shoreline

This isn't a movie. This isn't fiction. Can I help B escape the clinic, even when there is so much risk?

I look out with some frustration towards the old man sea; I'm about to fling my Samsung phone into its wet deep belly. My conversation with B's father isn't turning out as I had expected.

Leaving the clinic, I had called her father's hotel room to ask him about the risks, about the necessary medication, subconsciously thinking, no hoping, he would give me a way out by firmly putting his foot down on B's crazy plan.

Instead, he might just as well be saying to me Take my daughter and go, but make sure you're back before eight, for all the reaction my talk is having with him.

Still, I say "Thank you, sir," into my mobile phone's receiver, trying to hide the tone of disbelief in my voice. "I'll do whatever is necessary. You can be sure of that."

Our conversation is over. I move my phone away from my right ear to press its red button and kill the line.

What now? Do what you're famed for, fool. Think.

However, the sudden sound of a girl's voice from behind leaves me no time to think.

"Will you tell me what's really going on in your head this time?"

I hesitate, then turn around, slowly. Of course I know who it is. It's Mr X's daughter. "Aren't you a little early?" I reply.

It isn't the reaction she is expecting. "What do you mean?" she says.

I take out the piece of paper I had taken from B's bed, and wave it in the air between her confused face and mine. It has Mr X's daughter's phone number scrawled on it. "Surely I needed to call you first?"

She grins with relief, but she hasn't sold me on the smile. Silence falls between us as though a curtain has come down on an act we're playing, and I wonder what will come next.

She is the first to speak. "I just didn't think you'd call me. Even with B's say so."

I nod. "I won't deny that, but I seem to remember you drive with more than a little haste when I saw you a few hours ago. So, why are you still here?"

"Thought you'd made me run off mad is that it?" She gives me another resigned smile; I watch taught lips stretch uncomfortably into a curved line. "I thought I'd better hang around, just in case you did call but I'd crossed the border."

Although I'm still unconvinced by her explanation, she does have a point.

Depending on which side you are, calls across the Cyprus border are made through international dialling codes for Turkey or Cyprus, unless you have a local mobile line. Even then, if you're far apart enough, you have trouble getting through because of reception. It's a technological reminder of a divide where everything is either Greek and Turkish, with a sense of the Cypriot getting lost in between.

And what's so wrong with that, mister? B would have said.

I correct myself quickly. No- would say. It's what B would say. Present tense. Not past.

Not ever past.

I give Mr X's daughter a sidelong glance. "She gave me your Turkish mobile number, too."

"Oh, of course, right." As if doing a B on me and reading my thoughts, Mr X's daughter hurriedly adds a vocal addenda: "Yes, but there'd be no reception if I'd got over to Kyrenia. Paphos and Kyrenia are as far apart as you can get."

"I know exactly how far apart they are." Okay. That's it. I've had enough. Game over. Shifting my stance to face her full on, I take her hands in mine and look her square in the face. I speak soft, slow. "You're going to level with me, right now."

"Level with you?"

I nod. "I was on the phone to B's father just now-"

I stop speaking for a moment; I feel the words rush up into my throat bitter as bile, and I try to swallow them back down. I calm myself, and take a moment to look out towards the old man sea, but he has no answers for me.

"It's okay," she says.

"No it isn't okay. It's bad enough I feel guilty for calling B's father, it feels like a betrayal of trust, but it was something I felt I had to do. Then when I do, I've never heard-"

I stop again. My throat constricts. A feeling of suffocation rises in my chest. Of course I know what it means. Of course I know. The minute I heard the man's voice I knew what was going on.

I continue. "- B's father be so accepting of any situation. He never accepts any hand dealt him unless it's a winning one. It worries me, and I want you to tell me what it means."

You know exactly what it means. It means he has realised there are some things money can't buy. That's what B meant.

I look Mr X's daughter straight in the eyes. "Just what's going on?"

"What do you mean?"

"You know what I mean."

"I don't."

"You didn't come down just to bring B some brownies and I don't flatter myself that you were waiting just for me. But you were waiting for me to call, weren't you? As though on stand by. And B's father didn't even seem to think it a big deal his daughter wants to creep out of the clinic in the middle of the day, even though he's bought out a whole wing for her."

I know I'm being played in a game I know the name to, but I want to hear Mr X's daughter say it.

Maybe I'm being stupid. Then I want to hear that, too.

Suddenly, as we stand there, I realise I want to hear her call me stupid more than anything I've ever wanted in my life. It sounds so silly, I want to laugh.

Hope is like the sea, I think suddenly. It persists.

"So, tell me, what's going on?" I wait for her to respond.

Mr X's daughter looks very tired all of a sudden, as her make-up smile is wiped away to reveal what really lies beneath: "They told us a week before you came. They give her a few days now. That's when she finally called you."

I swear I can almost hear my heart crack.

She whispers, "I don't think this was part of B's 'Great Greek Escape' do you?"

I give her a stern look with my right eyebrow raised in ire, but she flaps a hand as though in an attempt to push it down. I'm reminded of B again. She says, "I'm not taking the piss. Isn't that what she calls it?"

"Why the game?" My mind has drained out all its thoughts, and I'm left with an empty space where I can hardly hear the sound of my voice as the last few surviving echo out loud.

A few days. A few days. A few days.

"She got her release from the clinic days ago. But she waited for you. She doesn't want you to think- to know- to act-" but Mr X's daughter stops mid-sentence. She can't explain what she means, because sometimes words are not enough. "She just wants to go home with you."

I don't need any more explanation than that. I see her eyes are about to fill up, but there's no time for that, either. The bubble of tension I feel expanding inside me disappears.

I know she's telling me the truth, but I don't believe it. I don't believe a word of it.

"Get your car ready," I say.

"Why?"

"Just get it ready. My best friend wants a great escape. Then that's what we're going to give her."

She nods. We go our separate ways; the sea and our footsteps on the gravelled pavement a surreal soundtrack to this scene.

Even the clinic had felt less claustrophobic than the walk back to it now. I feel I'm walking in a tunnel, but strangely I feel no sense of emergency just immediacy; I want to be out of the cloying air. I want to be with B.

I feel like a member of an exclusive club of people who've been insulted by strangers, or had rude comments made about their blog when they never asked anyone to read it. It's a bit like a guest inviting themselves over to your house for dinner and then complaining about the food. That's what this disease is, an uninvited guest, making itself at home in my B.

B is the most alive person I know. Why her?

She never asked for it. Yet, here it is, working its impersonal hate in the most beautiful person I've ever known. It doesn't know her, it doesn't have anything invested in a relationship with her, and it's protected by the relative anonymity of hiding inside her body, so it feels free to do whatever it wants to her.

It's a disease, not a person. Stop doing this.

Like those people who believe they're entitled to insult others for an opinion they don't agree with, or like mad people who walk up to strangers on the street and call them names, it showed up out of nowhere, insulted her, and will leave, but will try to take B with it.

So, how are you going to save her?

There were so many questions my mind wanted to ask: Where was I? I was in the past, I was in the now, I was somewhere in between the two, with my heart simply wanting to find and sit with B. But sitting was the last thing we'd be doing. I'd make sure of that.

Life was living, until the very end. We are meant to rage against the dying of the light, so Dylan Thomas says. A better man than I. I'd put that as an inspirational quote in the gift I'd given B earlier. I'm not sure whether it had been ill or aptly chosen, but that gift seems a useless thing now.

I find myself at the entrance to the building. I look over to see Mr X's daughter a few feet apart from me walking to her car. As though she can sense me staring at her, she stops and turns around. We stare at each other in the realisation that she has become a true friend, because she told me the truth when I needed to hear it.

Sadly, she says, "Don't tell her I told you, okay? She sent me to find you, so we can 'escape' before anyone sees us go. Okay? My car's just over there."

"Don't worry about it. And don't worry about anyone seeing us. We're going to blow this joint in style."

She looks concerned. "We'd planned to make it down the back way of the building. There's a fire escape on the third floor."

I nod. "I know. B told me. But no more games. We're going to do this my way. I'm going to come out the same way I go in."

I walk to the main entrance doors. Almost silently, its two main glass panel doors swish-slide to the left and right to make way for me to walk through. Without looking back, I go in.

Two neatly uniformed men at the main reception desk look at me, but I ignore them and move to the elevators to the far left of them. One of them signals me to go over.

Fuck everyone else, as B says. I think about all our times together, as I press the lift's button.

I had thought the Letters to B would be forever. Longer than the blog at least. Longer than anything the winds of change could blow at us.

If I could re-wind time, would I have done anything differently? Why didn't I write more posts about my friend? But a thousand more letters wouldn't have been enough for others to know her like I do.

The doors of the elevator slide apart. I step in.

I should have written about her more. Been with her more. Loved her more. But I can't write about this now. You fool. You fool.

I fill up with strange feelings as the elevator starts its dragging climb; it's my friend dying up there, but I feel this disease has offended me. I feel it's knocked my standards of etiquette. A complete stranger has displayed the bad manners to insult my friend.

What did this cancer want with us? There. The word is out. You've let it loose. It won't go back in its box.

I realise I was always a stranger to the disease until this moment. I'd helped local charities with its name in their title, but playing a charity football game for sufferers is not the same thing; you can't really know until it happens to you, or someone closer than you, what that word actually means.

It means you're going to have so many holes punched in you that you'll think people will be able to see straight through you, or that even the slightest wind can knock you down.

The lift stops. Its doors slide apart again. I step out and walk the corridors of the private clinic, past the closed, uniform doors.

The squeak of my soles on its expensive linoleum are quick this time.

I stop. Room 201. This time I don't hesitate. I open the door.

There she is, my honey B, lying on her bed and looking so small.

"Hello again, B," I say, looking down at her. "I've come to kidnap you."

She looks up at me, smiles tiredly. "I bet you called my dad."

I nod.

"You know he just called me, said he was going to replant a forest and name it after me. That's your influence you know. Maybe he'll cut down a few less trees from now on."

My throat is dry, but I say: "Maybe he's just mellowing in his old age."

It's a game we play. But first the small talk.

"I wonder if I would have mellowed in my old age?"

"We'll find out together, honey B," I say.

"Liar," she whispers. "If there's one thing you're crap at mister, it's lying. You had the good sense to say no to marrying me way back when."

I should've loved you more, B. "We can beat this," I say. "We will beat this."

"Yeah? You and whose army?"

"You and me, B. Who needs an army?"

"It's too late mister. I was in the last stages when we found out-"

I grab B then, and kiss her.

There is a time for the truth, but now is a time for hope.

And then without warning my tears come, slowly, achingly; they rip themselves out from me.

"Oi! Mister!" I hear B laugh, her breath warming my neck. "You're making me all wet! The boy who never cried when half his arm was hanging off, what are you doing now? I thought you only cried at silly football games?"

"I can stand losing an arm, honey B. I can stand to lose every part of me, but not you. I can't stand to see the fight knocked out of you. There's always hope, honey B. There's always hope."

I lift her up into the cradle of my arms; I try to hide my surprise at how light she is. I look ahead, but I know that I can't lie to B. And one look at me, B will know I know.

B wraps her arms around my neck. "Mister, you hopeless, foolish, fucking optimist. When everyone says-"

I cut into her sentence. "Forget what everyone says, B. What do you want?"

"I want to go home."

"Okay. That's the first thing we'll do, and then we'll start fighting this thing-"

B cuts in to my sentence this time. "And I need you to do something for me."

She wipes a stubborn tear from my eyelashes. I feel embarrassed. "Anything."

"When I'm- when it's all over, I want you to write this on your blog."

"B-no. Absolutely not."

"I want you to take notes, and publish this."

"I can't B. Not this. I can't do it, not on the blog. Stick you and my heart right in amongst the latest snippet of the day? It doesn't feel right."

"Why not? You always give people something real to read. Promise me."

"Why for goodness sake?"

"Because I know you, because you're stupid! I know you're blaming yourself already for all this, because you think you're Superman and should be able to save me from anything! That's why I never told you! Because you'd go all fucking positive on me, and want to do this and that, when nothing could change this big fuck-up change."

"B, I can't."

"You will. You have to."

I stare at her. She stares back.

"Otherwise you'll never let me go."

"I will never let you go." But how well she knows me. How well my beautiful friend knows that it's my writing that saves me. That is what she's trying to do, even in her own dark, she is trying to save me.

I suddenly feel ashamed about my embarrassment over my tears. There is nothing wrong in crying for something real, even if it's truly for the first time in our lives.

She whispers in my ear as though someone might be listening, "I want you to let me go. I- I think you were right about that bricks and mortar thing. I want to be in a room without walls. Fuck religious rites. I want to be cremated, to have my ashes thrown out to sea. So, every time you go to meditate, I can swim back to you."

"You're a silly romantic missy," I whisper back in her ear.

"Don't try to sweet talk me out of it. Promise me."

"Okay, honey B. Fine."

"Say it."

I place a light kiss on her nose. "I promise."

She looks deep into my eyes, as though to make sure that the pact is sealed, and then with a small nod of her head, she says, "Take us home, mister."

As always, as ever obediently, I do as B says, although we both know she was home the minute I picked her up in my arms.

Main Index | Part one | Part two | Part three | Part four | End of part five

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