Thursday, 10th May 1956 : 19:30
“Stop the car!“ Joseph screamed. The Creole chauffeur swerved to the right and screeched off the road. ”Ssss Sss Spiders on the seat! O-o-o-o-o-o-h Look at that!!! Noooo! N-o-o-o-o-o-! It’s a Ss Sss snake. It’s going to strike! It’s going to spit poison in my eyes. N-o-o-o-o-o-!”. He covered his eyes and turned away. “The morphine is beginning to affect him, Madame”, the nurse mumbled in a low voice. We need to get him to a hospital and calm him down- quickly!.” Outside the car, Joseph continued to protest Lear-like against the spiders in his head till, suddenly, he grew tired, returned to the car and promptly fell asleep on the belly-pillow of Chico’s little sleeping body.
“Madame Merlin, be careful in case he is ill again. He will make a mess on your little boy.”
“Don’t worry”, said Teresa, “I will watch over both. You stay in the front seat with the driver.” The Creole driver sped onto into the night but his eyes were wide and bulbous with fear after having witnessed Patron Merlin’s outburst.
The next day, the same surgeons who had already operated on Joseph Merlin pushed, prodded and tapped his body in various places. Eyes glued to the ceiling, their hands wandered over human flesh like spider crabs. Then they adjourned for discussions, behind closed doors.
Thirty minutes later, a solitary white coat was mandated to convey the prognosis to the future widow, “Madame Merlin, we have made a very close examination of your… of Monsieur Merlin. We think that there may be evidence that the…ah… the aah…growth is more pervasive now than it was two months ago. The radical surgery we carried out does not seem to have made any… uhhh…. inroads into the carcinoma. … Monsieur Merlin’s liver is enlarged. This could mean that the cancer was much further advanced than we first estimated. But we’re not 100% sure. We will have to confirm this”.
“Is the cancer not finished?”, retorted Shinha, “I thought that the operation to cut out his …colon would get rid of the cancer.”
“Yes, Madame Merlin”, replied the white coat, “ we thought that would be the case but there is always the risk in surgery that the…. ah….the aah…. polyp…. The… growth … will spread once it is excised, no matter how.. how… r-a-d-I-cal the surgery.”
Shinha turned her head and eyed the doctor fiercely. He was unable to hold her stare, ” Doctor, I was told that cutting his entire colon out would give him a 90 to 95% chance of recovery, and that he would be off the Morphine within 1 month”
“Yes, Madame, it is true. We said this, but we did not know that the carcinoma from the polyp, even at that stage, had already spread to other organs. So, now, our only course of action is to use a new treatment, a very powerful sort of radiation to slow the rate of growth of the disease, to try to prolong his life.
“PROLONG …?” muttered Teresa, aghast.
“Yes”, continued the white coat, “we feel it will prolong his life”
“p-r-o-l-o-n-g…” she whispered in a low voice.
“Yes, we are pretty sure that the disease is now in his liver and there are no…. there are no…… human…. means left of attacking it. We can only slow it down. However, the treatment is very dangerous. It will be like killing him slowly so that the cancer does not kill him first.
And, for that Madame, we need your permission”.
Two months later, she returned home with a skeleton. Her visits to the hospital had not prepared her for the sight of Joseph in the cruel light of day. She couldn’t bear to look him in the eye in case he read the shock in her eyes. It was easier to acknowledge the abject poverty flashing across the car windows than to accept that this was the same man who had married her only three years before. She wondered where he had hidden his photograph and the small hand mirror. She guessed that using the mirror would be like a condemned prisoner re-reading his death sentence day after day, month-after-month but still not believing it. After all, even condemned men die only once. But Joseph surely continued to secretly check and double-check his pre-cancerous face on the photograph with the disease-riddled ghost in the hand mirror in front of him; It was manic and was bound to spin his brain out of control.
She stole a glance at him, saw that his eyes had lit up and was visibly enthralled with the world that looked into the car, “What beautiful trees! And all those bushes, those colours, all that GREEN”, he mumbled in a quiet monologue of wonder. The chauffeur-driven Rover 90 worked its way through the fumes and the violence of rush-hour traffic accompanied by an increasingly feeble, “So GREEN…. so much colour.” When the car finally crunched to a halt on the gravel drive, Monsieur Jean the chauffeur carried Joseph’s hosepipe legs into the house as if he were a baby again.
He was now bed-bound.
The marital bed constituted the centre of his world. “It’s all those medicines they gave at the hospital”, ran the whisper above Francisco’s head. “They’re meant to save him, not carry out experiments. He’s not a Guinea Pig.” On the rare occasions when the bouncing boy was paraded in front of his father, he caught sight of a set of bright yellow soles poking through the sheets. Crusts of yellowing skin clung grimly on and would stay on so long as blood continued to flow through the veins and the spark of life still ignited the breast.
Chico gingerly kissed the fragile hand that led up to his father’s head.
It was a hard, angular head, a bony head, one that had been carefully chiselled by the advancing hordes of disease. In the caverns that harboured the eyes, cornered animals darted from face to face looking for confirmation of approaching extinction. Lips mumbled benign nothings whilst cornered animals desperately searched for a clue, an expression, a telltale sign that the hourglass of life had run empty.
This was followed by the unsteady fumble for the hand mirror, and the photograph, which lay hidden in his underpants, the last bastion of privacy in a fast shrinking universe. And then, before Chico’s very eyes, the head was uplifted and transported to new destinations by caring hands that belonged to white uniforms in a morphine-driven dream of soft, soft pillows and eyelids that winced as slowly as last night’s dream.
The high, nose-tingling smell of alien medicines, the disquieting rattle of glass syringes and the whispers of death ran his bed gauntlet. They were there and kept vigil; they sniffed at the perimeter of his bed to see if he was ripe for picking. As night approached, he felt them draw ever closer till, daringly, they snatched down to where his terrified soul lay hidden. There, below the canopy of his own physical pain, even there, the worm of impending doom became his constant companion.