At about this time, the Beast is born. He appears one morning after the children have gone to school. The house is quiet, and I have crept along the corridor to clean my teeth. Dental hygiene is very important when on chemotherapy; all the leaflets will tell you.
I have just snapped a length of floss from a carton when I catch sight of it in the mirror. Brown eyes. Ashen skin. Grizzled head. Bald, or almost. Hard to tell its age – somewhere out on the long road between forty and sixty. As for the sex, you wouldn’t say it has one. It has a repulsive kind of androgyny.
‘Get away from me! Get!’ I start pulling the thread vigorously between my teeth. ‘You can’t haunt me, with your scurfy head and your rotten breath. I’ve got friends. There are people who love me. I’ve got their names and addresses. I’ve even got numbers.’
‘Sssss!’ it says with a soft rattle.
I put out toothpaste and start brushing my teeth systematically: twenty strokes on the upper left, twenty on the lower, twenty on the upper right, twenty on the lower.
Beast isn’t impressed. It watches me with a cool gaze, in which there is something mocking. There is something else too, something worse – that makes me start up in fury – a wet gleam of pity.
‘Get away from me! You can’t touch me. I’ve got twenty thousand pounds of ISAs in a Virgin tracker fund. I’ve got a job. Or I did, before I got cancer. I’ve got an email account. I’ve got a husband. And a house. I’ve got all my teeth.’
The thing you need to know about Beast is s/he is not savoury. Beast spends most of its time in bed. Wakes lethargic in the mornings, heaving its sweating body up through a mess of dreams. What are they? Something shameful. Something dishonourable. Sex, is it? Beast had a childhood too. A youth. And all its old friends are paying their visits. Old lovers. Old houses. Dead mothers. Dead pets. It’s a real processional in there. Beast wakes up exhausted every morning from this traffic with the past.
Downstairs, there’s the rock and swell of family life. Beast used to be a part of this, but has long dropped out of it. There is someone Beast used to call a husband – God knows how it secured itself one of those – struggling to bring up two children single-handed. He doesn’t find it easy. There’s a lot of shouting and banging as they get themselves out of the house in the morning. Wailing, scraping, shoving and thumping. It makes Beast’s head throb.
Finally, a patter of footsteps on the stairs. ‘Goodbye, Mummy,’ says a creature with a chaste oval forehead and golden hair that looks as if she has just walked out of a quattrocento painting. ‘Bye bye, Mummy,’ says another with the face of an angel. They seem to want something from Beast, and linger by its bed. ‘Ggrbyye,’ says Beast, struggling to get out some phonemes with its thick slab of tongue, and twisting its head in an effort not to tarnish the little angels with its stinking breath. ‘Ggrbyye … grbyye .. .’
Sometimes Beast gets up. ‘Musssh gedup. Frsssh. Air. Goodfer. Musssh,’ it mutters to itself, pushing back the duvet. No ‘throwing back’ for the Beast, nothing so dynamic. Everything is slow now, very slow. The molecules of poison are reaching into the heart of the cells. Nothing is growing; nothing reproducing. We are approaching Ground Zero.
Beast pads heavily over to the cupboard to find some clothes. But when it opens the doors, what it sees there is baffling. There are all these little coloured things, chic and pretty. Tight jackets and wraparound cardigans; skinny jeans and ruffled blouses. Dresses and belts and boots with a heel.
Beast couldn’t wear any of this. That white blouse next to its skin would look macabre, like Death and the Maiden. That fresh print smock on its collapsed chest would be too sad. And maybe someone else could do the little cardigan with the animal print collar when bald on top, but it isn’t the Beast. ‘Gross’ is the word that comes to mind. The way teenage girls say it, sashaying down the street with their little headphones on and their hipster belts. ‘Truly gross!’
Beast could weep for itself. To all its humiliations, does the act of clothing this broken body have to be added? It fetches out some old maternity slacks with an elasticated waist, and pulls on a jumper without registering the colour. It would like the simple dignity of escaping this room without having to look at itself again in the mirror. But not so fast: there’s the question of its head. If it goes out like this, people will stare. Baldness has never been a neutral act. It’s a symbol: of religious dedication, wartime humiliation, sexual subversion. Female baldness is more freighted still.
Sick person. Dying person? How long before … ? they will wonder. Before it’s halfway down the street, Beast will be felled with emotional exhaustion from all that interrogative horror.
So it reaches for its wig. The beautiful real-hair wig that a friend brought to the hospital in the wake of diagnosis. Beast draws the nylon cap tight on its head, fans out the lovely blonde tresses. But no, that won’t do either. ‘Probably came from some Russian or Polish girl selling her hair to feed her family.’ Someone’s sharp comment rattles in its head. Is this what it’s come to? Beast, who was once young, who was once beautiful, turned into a sexual vampire, an elderly monster decking itself out in a young woman’s hair?
When Beast reaches the street (in a blue kerchief with a bold design of lozenges to draw attention from the face) it is quiet. It’s mid-afternoon and children are at school. Able-bodied adults are at work. Housewives are at home, or browsing the aisles at Tesco. This is a relief. Latterly, interacting with the human race has become too difficult for Beast, who avoids it at every opportunity.
It sets off for the park, with its shambling, rocking gait. Rock, squelch. Rock, squelch. Its overriding concern is to reach the end of the street without bumping into a neighbour. It manages that without mishap. But then there’s the question of crossing the wider road to the park.
It stands on the pavement watching the cars. They come so fast. Beast can’t get the hang of them. There are two close together, one straggling behind, then a long interval and three in close succession. After a while, Beast realises that several people have crossed while it’s been standing there waiting. There is a sudden cry from a toddler descending a slide; Beast thinks someone is yelling at it to hurry up and steps off the pavement.
But it’s all at the wrong moment. A car whoomps to a halt, another behind it. There is the blare of a horn. ‘What the fuck!’ the first driver mouths into his windscreen. Beast’s heart is pounding. It feels a surge of adrenalin. And it lurches forward. Or it would if it could. But the problem now is that the muscles won’t work. There is too much poison. The neural firings have got clogged; the messages can’t get through. So Beast lurches to the left, in a panic, trying to get away from the car with the angry driver.
The driver can’t see why Beast has gone off to the left like that, rather than crossing the road directly. So he keeps his fist down on the horn. The blare of it goes echoing out into the day. Some crows flap up from the trees. The toddler, back at the top of the slide again, turns round to stare. Beast reaches the central island, the one that is always full of daffodils in spring. Truly, it thinks to itself, things have reached such a pass, it needs a companion to get across the road.
In the park, an old man is walking a dog. A couple of teenagers are playing with a football, tossing it back and forth to each other across the sloping green. Beast takes the path that runs along the top of the park, the one that gives you a swooping view of the spires of Oxford: St Mary’s, the university church, the icing-sugar pinnacles of the Bodleian, the handsome lantern of the Radcliffe Camera.
Beast comes to a halt in front of a stand of oak trees. It looks up at a particularly fine one, with vaults of green leaves and ribbed bark. As Beast watches, a breeze lifts the leaves on a lower branch. There is a stiff rustle. This spreads from one branch to the next, from that one to the one above it, and so on, until a climacteric of sound, springing from a thousand sources, possesses the tree. Formerly, this would have been a source of wonder to Beast. It might have felt a corresponding movement in its own body, a kind of internal dance. It might even have tried to find words for it. But now it stands in front of the tree without sensation. Nothing.
This tree could be wrapped in clingfilm from head to toe, each individual leaf sealed in it. Beast cannot touch it. Cannot feel it. Cannot smell it. There is no connection.
On the green, the boys run after the football. They chug up and down, legs whirring in a mechanical motion, like strips from a comic book. Why do they do that?
Before the oak tree, unable to feel a thing, Beast acknowledges that something has broken. Beast has come adrift from life itself. In this beautiful midsummer day, with grass and sky and leaves, it has no place. It turns away and begins to shamble back down the street. Rock, squelch. Rock, squelch. Halfway down the road, it hears the scrape of a neighbour’s door. Oh horror! Beast scuttles along the hedge, up the last bit of path, slams shut its own front door. Thank God. In its bedroom once again, it peels off the kerchief, the unlovely clothes, and eases its body between the sheets. The ash branch taps familiarly on the window. Beast closes its eyes. For it all to go away … to go away. As if it had never been.
‘I can’t do this any more,’ I say one morning at breakfast. R is busy doing the children’s lunchboxes. He is cutting crusts off sandwiches, washing apples for snack time, filling water bottles. He is finding shoes, cardigans, book bags, jackets. He is also filling in the form allowing Michaela to go on a school trip to the history museum; finalising my self-assessment tax returns for the previous year; marking several boxes of essays that have arrived by recorded delivery; scouring the internet at night to research survival rates of BRCAl women with Grade III 2.8cm tumours; and planning when to get the plumber in for the broken boiler, which we can’t afford to replace. ‘I just can’t do it,’ I repeat.
‘Oh, don’t worry,’ he says, without looking up. ‘Just another couple to go. You’ll get through it.’
‘I don’t think you heard me,’ I say icily.
‘I know it’s awful, S. I know it’s really hard,’ he says. ‘But there are only two more. Really. We’ll get through it.’
About the Book
This is a book about mothers and motherless daughters, and about a woman so scared of leaving her own children that she is hardly able to mother them herself.
After a troubled upbringing that saw the early death of her mother from cancer, Sarah Gabriel had created a happy home life with her partner and two beautiful daughters. Then, at 44, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and learned that while you can turn your back on your past, you can’t escape your genetic legacy. The problem was MIST, a rare and deadly genetic mutation that was responsible for the death of her mother and countless female ancestors. In Gabriel’s struggle for survival, she takes us on a white-knuckle ride through contemporary genetics, the rigours of her treatment for cancer, and the impact of the disease on her family’s dynamics. It is a fight not just for physical survival, but for identity, for sanity, for hope.
Laced with black humour, written with a mixture of passion and clinical accuracy, Eating Pomegranates is an intensely powerful and moving memoir about mothers, daughters and breast cancer that is as beautiful as it is brutal.
About the Author
by Sarah Gabriel is an author and journalist living in Oxford.