Read an Excerpt
A newbie arrives next door. From this side of the wall I hear the shuffle of feet, unsure of where to stand. I hear Nina going through the arrival instructions in that buoyant air hostess way, as if this “flight” will go smoothly, no need to pull the emergency exit lever. Just relax and enjoy the service. Nina has the kind of voice you believe.
She’ll be saying, This remote is for your bed. See? You can tilt it here, or recline it with this button. See? You try.
Ten months ago, Nina explained these things to me. It was a Tuesday. Plucked from a math class in period two, I was bustled into the car with Mum and an overnight bag. On the five-hour drive north to Perth, Mum used words like “precautions” and “standard testing.” But I knew then, of course. I’d been tired and sick for ages. I knew.
I was still wearing my school uniform when Nina led me into Room 6 and showed me how to use the bed remote, the TV remote, and the internal phone. With a flick of her wrist she demonstrated how to tick the boxes on the blue menu card: breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner. I was glad Mum was paying attention, because all I could think about was the heaviness of my school bag and the English essay that was due the next day, the one I’d gotten an extension for already. I do remember the clip Nina had in her hair, though. It was a ladybug with six indented spots. Funny how the brain does things like that. Your whole world is getting sucked up and tossed around and the best you can do is fixate on something small and unexpected. The ladybug seemed out of place, but like a piece of junk in the ocean it was something, at least, to cling to.
I can recite the nurses’ welcoming spiel by heart these days. If you get cold, there are blankets in here, Nina will be saying. I wonder what hair clip she’s wearing today.
“So,” says Mum, as casually as she can. “A new arrival.”
And I know that she loves it and hates it. Loves it because there’s someone new to meet and greet. Hates it because this shouldn’t be wished on anyone.
“When did we last get a new one?” Mum recalls names. “Mario, prostate; Sarah, bowel; Prav, bladder; Carl’s colon; Annabelle . . . what was she?”
They’ve all been oldies over sixty, well entrenched in their cycles. There was nothing new or exciting about any of them.
A nurse darts past the round window in my door—Nina. Something yellow’s in her hair. It could be a chicken. I wonder if she has to go to the kids’ section of stores to buy them. In the real world, it’d be weird for a twenty-eight-year-old woman to wear plastic animals in her hair, wouldn’t it? But in here, it kind of makes sense.
My circular view of the corridor returns to normal: a white wall and two-thirds of the VISITORS, IF YOU HAVE A COUGH OR COLD, PLEASE STAY AWAY sign.
Mum mutes the TV with the remote and shifts in her chair. Hoping to pick up vital audio clues, she turns her head so her good ear is nearest the wall. When she tucks her hair behind her ear, I see there’s more gray than there used to be.
“Shhh.” She leans closer.
At this point, the standard sequence is as follows: The new patient’s “significant other” comments on the view, the bed, and the size of the bathroom. The patient agrees. There’s the flicking through the six TV channels, then a switching off. Often, there’s nervous laughter at the gray stack of disposable urinals and bedpans, prompted by the naive belief the patient will never be weak enough or desperate enough to use them.
And then there’s a stretch of silence that follows their gaze from one white wall—with its plugs and label-makered labels and holes for things they can’t even imagine yet—to the other. They track the walls, north to south, east to west, before they sag with the knowledge that this has become real, that treatment will start tomorrow, and this bed will become home for several days, on again, off again, in well-planned cycles for however many months or years it’ll take to beat this thing, and there is no emergency exit lever. Then the significant other will say, Oh, well, it’s not so bad. Oh, look, you can see the city from here. Look.
Sometime later, after unpacking clothes and trying out the cafeteria’s coffee for the first time, the new person inevitably crawls into bed with two magazines and the knowledge that this isn’t a flight after all, but a cruise, and their room is a cabin beneath the water’s surface, where land is something only to dream of.
But whoever is in Room 2 isn’t following the standard sequence of action. There’s a loud thump of a bag and that’s it. There’s no unzipping. There’s no click-clacking of coat hangers at the back of the wardrobe, no rattling of toiletries in the top drawer. Worse, there’s no soothing verbal exchange.
Mum turns to me. “I should go say hi.”
“Only because you’re losing,” I say, trying to buy the new patient some time. Mum’s only behind by five points and admittedly we’re both having a crap round. My best word has been BOGAN, which caused some debate. Hers was GLUM, which is pretty sad.
Mum lays out BOOT and adds six points to her score. “Nina didn’t mention there was a new admission.”
She says this without irony, as if she actually expects to be told of the comings and goings of patients on Ward 7G. Mum’s been here so long, she’s forgotten she belongs somewhere else.
“It’s too soon.”
“Just a tea . . .”
My mother: the Unofficial Welcoming Committee of the oncology ward. The maker of calming teas, and the bringer of cafeteria scones with individual portions of plum jam. The self-appointed sounding board for patients’ families.
“Finish the game,” I tell her.
“But what if they’re alone? Like what’s-his-name? Remember him?”
“Maybe they want to be on their own.” Isn’t that normal? To want to be alone sometimes?
Then I hear it too. I can’t make out the words at first—there’s a plaster wall between us, about six centimeters I guess—but I hear a simmering of sounds.
“Two women,” Mum says, her hazel eyes dilating. Her mouth twists as she listens to the s’s and t’s that spit and hiss. “One is older than the other.”
“Stop snooping,” I tell her, but it’s not as if we can help it. The voices are growing louder, words firing like projectiles: Shouldn’t! Stop! Don’t! Wouldn’t!
“What is going on in there?” Mum asks, and I offer her my empty glass to press, spy-like, against the wall.
“Don’t be a smartass,” she says, and then, “That doesn’t actually work, does it?”
It’s not as if my family doesn’t fight. There were times, years ago, when Mum and Bec would go right off. They’d be on their feet, vicious as rottweilers. Dad and Evan would back out of the house, escaping to the olive farm, where blistering voices couldn’t follow, but I’d often stay on the veranda, not trusting them to be left alone.
The fights lost their intensity once Bec turned eighteen. It helped that she moved into the old house next door, which was once used for workers. She’s twenty-two now and pregnant, and she and Mum are close. They’re still as stubborn as hell, but they’ve learned how to laugh at each other.
There’s no laughing in Room 2. The voices sound dangerous. There’s swearing—then a door shuts. It doesn’t slam, because all the doors are spring-loaded, closing with a controlled, unsatisfying whoosh. Then footsteps rush the corridor. A woman’s head flashes past my window. She’s short—her head skims the bottom edge. She’s wearing brown-rimmed glasses and a tortoiseshell claw that grips most of her sandy hair. Her right hand clutches the back of her neck.
Beside me, Mum is all meerkat. Her attention twitches from the door to the wall, then to me. After twenty days in Room 1, she’s forgotten that out in the real world people get pissed off, that tempers are short, like at school, where kids arc up after getting bumped in the lunch line. She’s forgotten about egos and rage.
Mum readies herself to launch into action: to follow that woman and offer tea, date scones, and a shoulder to lean on.
“Save the pep talk for tomorrow.”
What I think is that they’ll both need more than Mum’s counsel. They’ll need alcohol, probably. Five milligrams of Valium, perhaps.
I lay down NOSY, snapping the squares onto the board, but Mum doesn’t take the bait.
“Why would anyone argue like that? In a cancer ward? Surely they’d just—”
As if through a megaphone, a voice comes booming through the wall.
“What . . . on . . . earth . . . ?”
Then a beat kicks in that jolts us both. Mum’s letters clatter to the floor.
Music, of sorts, is invading my room at a level previously unknown on Ward 7G. The new girl must have brought her own speakers and lumped them on the shelf above the bed, facing the wall, then cranked them right up to the max. Some singer howls through the plaster. Doesn’t she know it’s our wall?
Mum’s sprawled on all fours, crawling under my bed to retrieve her seven letters, while the room throbs with electropop ass-squeezing and wanting it bad. I’ve heard the song before, maybe a year or two ago.
When Mum gets up off the floor, she’s holding a bonus T and X, a strawberry lip balm, and a Mintie.
“Who’s the singer?” Mum asks.
“How would I know?” It’s whiny and it’s an assault on my senses.
“It’s like a nightclub in here,” she says.
“Since when have you been in a nightclub?”
Mum raises an eyebrow as she unwraps the Mintie. To be fair, I haven’t been in a nightclub either, so neither of us is qualified to make comparisons. The noise level is probably more blue-light disco, but it’s a shock for two people who’ve spent so long in a quiet, controlled room with conservative neighbors.
“Is it Cher? I liked Cher . . .”
I’m not up to speed on female singers with single names. Rihanna? Beyoncé? Pink? Painful lyrics pound their way through the wall.
Then it hits me. The newbie’s gone Gaga. The girl’s got cancer and bad taste?
“Or is it Madonna?”
“Are you still playing or what?” I say, intersecting BOOT with KNOB. The song is banging on about riding on a disco stick. Seriously?
Mum finally pops the Mintie into her mouth. “It must be a young one,” she says softly. Young ones upset her more than old ones. “Such a shame.” Then she turns to me and is reminded that, yes, I’m a young one too. She looks down at her hand of disjointed letters, as if trying to compose a word that could make sense of this.
I know what she’s thinking. Damn it, I’ve come to know her too well.
“They must be good speakers, don’t you think?” she says.
“We should have brought your speakers from home, shouldn’t we? Or bought some. I could go shopping tomorrow.”
“Go steal hers.”
“That song is destroying my white blood cell count.”
I’m only half joking.
The song ends, but there’s no justice, because it starts again. The same song. Honestly, Lady freaking Gaga? At this volume?
“It’s your turn.” Mum places BOARD carefully on the . . . board. Then she plucks another four letters from the bag as if everything is normal and we’re not being aurally abused.
“The song’s on repeat,” I say, unnecessarily. “Can you ask her to stop?”
“Zac, she’s new.”
“We were all new once. It’s no excuse for . . . that. There’s got to be a law. A patient code of ethics.”
“Actually, I don’t mind it.” Mum nods her head as proof. Bopping, I believe it’s called.
I look into my lap at the T F J P Q R S. I don’t even have a vowel.
I give up. I can’t think; don’t want to. I’ve had enough of this song, now playing for the third time in a row. I try to suffocate myself with a pillow.
“Do you want a tea?” Mum asks.
I don’t want tea—I never want tea—but I nod so I can be alone for a few minutes, or an hour, if she tracks down the newbie’s significant other and performs emergency scone therapy in the patients’ lounge.
I hear water running as Mum follows the hand-washing instructions conscientiously.
“I won’t be long.”
“Go!” I say. “Save yourself.”
When the door closes behind her, I release the pillow. I slide my Scrabble letters into the box and recline my bed to horizontal. I’m finally granted precious mother-free time and it’s ruined by this. The song begins for the fourth time.
How is it possible that Room 1 can be such an effective sanctuary from the germs of the outside world, but so pathetic at protecting me from the hazards of shit music?
I can’t hear the girl—I can’t hear anything but that song—but I reckon she’s lying on her bed, mouthing the lyrics, while I’m doing my best to ignore them.
Room 2 is pretty much identical to mine. I know; I’ve stayed there before. They have the same wardrobe, same bathroom, same paint and blinds. Everything is in duplicate, but as a mirror image. If looked at from above, the bed headboards would appear to back onto each other, separated only by the six- centimeter width of this wall.
If she’s lying on her bed right now, we are practically head-to-head.
Farther down the corridor, there are six other single rooms, then eight twin-bedders. I’ve been in each of them. When I was diagnosed the first time in February, I became a frequent flyer for six months, moving through cycles of induction, consolidation, intensification, and maintenance. At the end of each chemo cycle, Mum would drive us the five hundred kilometers back home, where I’d rest, get some strength, and make it to a day or two of school, even though my classmates were preparing for exams I wouldn’t get to take. Then we’d yo-yo back to Perth, settling in to whichever room was free and bracing ourselves for the next hit.
We both expected chemo to work. It didn’t.
“If you can’t zap it, swap it,” Dr. Aneta had rallied when I relapsed. On a planner she highlighted a fluorescent yellow block from November 18 to December 22. Zac Meier, she printed. Bone Marrow Transplant. Room 1. The first eight or nine days would be to zap me again, she explained, ready for the transplant on “Day 0.” The rest of the stay would be for strict isolation, to heal and graft in safety.
“Five weeks in the same room?” Shit, even high-security prisoners get more freedom than that.
She clicked the lid back onto the pen. “At least you’ll be out in time for Christmas.”
Before leukemia, I had enough trouble sitting in a room for two hours, let alone a whole day. Everything interesting happened outside: football, cricket, the beach, and the farm. Even at school, I’d always sit by the window so I could see what I was missing out on.
“Room One’s got the best view,” Dr. Aneta said, as if that could sweeten it. As if I had a choice.
The song ends and I hold my breath. For a moment, I hear only the predictable sounds: the whir of my drip, the hum of my bar fridge.
I wonder if the newbie is counting the squares on her ceiling for the first time. There are eighty-four, I could tell her. Eighty-four, just like mine. Or maybe she’s already recounting them the opposite way, just to be sure.
Eighteen freaking times? Methotrexate is nothing—this is killing me.
The nurses are still in their weekly meeting, so there’s no one to save me from this endless cycle of crap. Who would listen to a song eighteen times? Make it nineteen. Is this girl mental? Is she experimenting with a new form of therapy, trying to make her cancerous cells spontaneously self-destruct? Is there some Lady Gaga Miracle Cancer Cure I haven’t heard of?
Old patients never do this kind of thing. They have respect. Admittedly, Bill can turn his radio up too loud for the dog races, but the volume only reaches mildly annoying, not all-consuming. Then there’s Martha, whose high-pitched cackle is grating, but only when she’s drinking rooibos tea.
It’s not as if I can get up off this bed, walk out the door, and find a quiet broom closet to hide myself in. Thanks to Bone Marrow Transplant Protocol I’m stuck in this four-by-five-meter room. Twenty days down, fifteen to go—which is too long to be held hostage to the obsessive compulsions of a girl next door. All I can do is put my pillow over my head and hope she’s got Hodgkin’s lymphoma, with a one-day-a-month cycle. I can’t contemplate the possibility of her being an AML or ALL. If she’s getting a BMT, I’m legging it.
The song begins again, making it twenty—the number I decided would be my breaking point. I have to do something before my ears start to bleed.
A shout won’t penetrate her Gaga-thon. How else can I communicate through a six-centimeter-thick wall?
I get up off the bed and notice my hands are bunched into fists. So I use one.
I knock. Politely at first, as if I’m a visitor to someone’s house. I knock, hoping the message gets through.
No. It doesn’t seem to.
I knock again, in sets of three, as insistent as a courier this time. Knock knock knock. Wait. Knock knock knock.
The song reaches the chorus I’ve come to hate so much. Worse, I now know all the lyrics.
I bang harder, like an annoyed brother locked out. My fist thumps every beat in time, banging them so loudly, she must be hearing them in stereo. The wall on her side has to be bouncing with the impact.
The music stops—success!—and so do I, noticing how easily skin has peeled from my red knuckles. I rub it away and realize I’m grinning.
Perhaps it’s because this is the first contact I’ve had with anyone since I’ve been in this room. Nurses, doctors, and my mum don’t count. The new girl is young—someone my age. My heart pounds with the effort. I’m dizzy with it. My room throbs. Whir. Drip. Hum.
Then, tap, the wall says back to me. Tap.
The tap isn’t angry like the music had been or the words she’d shouted earlier. The tap is close. She must be near now, puzzled, a curious ear against the wall, as if listening for alien contact.
Knock, I reply to the wall, down lower this time.
The wall sounds hollow. Is it?
Tap tap? In the quiet, the tap is raw. I think it’s a question.
In the gaps in between, there’s nothing but the whirring of my IV machine and the anticipation of the next cue. My quads ache as I wait. My feet feel cold on the linoleum.
It’s clear neither of us knows Morse code, and yet something is being spoken. I wonder what she’s trying to ask me.
Knock. Silence. Knock.
And I wonder what I’m saying.
Then that’s it.
Whir. Hum. Buzz. Drip. Whir.
On my knees by the wall, I’m ashamed. I shouldn’t have complained about her music on her first day of admission. There are too many things I don’t know.
She doesn’t tap and I don’t knock.
I just kneel, imagining she’s doing the same, six centimeters away.