Jerry sat on the toilet listening to BBC Radio Five Live. He was holding the ‘guidance for patients’ leaflet on photocopied, stapled white A4 sheets of paper. Lucy, his wife, had told him nonchalantly that she’d found a lump in her left breast while they were watching TV on the sofa.
“So, I found a lump in my breast,” she said.
“Oh?” Jerry responded.
“Yeh, I’m not going to worry about it, but I’ve made an appointment to see the
“OK. Which one?”
“The left one.”
Jerry went to go and feel it, but she shook him away.
“I just want to see what it feels like,” Jerry said.
Jerry read the leaflet about breast cancer. He repeated the words he read quietly to himself. Breast, cancer, surgery, radiotherapy, diagnosis, consultation, support, charity, family. He’d taken it off the kitchen counter so the kids wouldn’t see it. She said he could read up about it, get informed. Jerry didn’t really know what that meant, but in between the anthems playing at the start of a World Cup match, he tried his best to study the leaflet. He folded it and stuffed it into the pocket of his combat shorts, next to the other white photocopied letter he’d received that day.
The waiting room was busy the next morning. Jerry and Lucy waited patiently for her appointment.She played with her mobile and Jerry sat in his grey suit, which felt a bit tight around his thighs, and looked around at the others waiting, mostly women. A trolley of tea and coffee was being served by two elderly volunteers in blue bibs who struggled to pick up the old metal teapot with a long spout that poured scalding water into Styrofoam cups.
“Tea, coffee?” one of the volunteers cheerily asked, manoeuvring the trolley closer to Jerry.
“No thank you,” he replied.
“You sure love? Looks like you need one.”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
Jerry looked up over his glasses at the telly. Antiques Roadshow was on repeat and the presenters were burbling loudly about an old looking porcelain vase with what looked like sea urchins stuck to the outside. Is that what a lump looks like? Jerry thought.
“Lucy Ryan,” an elderly Consultant, wearing a frayed blue tie tucked into his white
Lucy put her long black hair into a ponytail, grabbed her maroon puffer coat and
disappeared behind door number four. Jerry held her hand tightly before she left, letting go at just the last second. She smiled at him.
“Nothing to worry about,” she said.
Jerry knew that if the appointment was more than five minutes he’d worry. A bit like having to hold a one nil lead for the last five minutes of a football game he thought. If you were able to take the ball into the corner and hold it there, mess around, he liked to call it, then you’d sap the opposition’s energy and territory. That was only possible for five minutes, so he knew if the appointment went over five minutes, he could start to worry.
Jerry hadn’t told Lucy about his job at the charity. The Head of Department and an HR Business Partner had called him into the windowless ‘HR Confidential Room’ the previous day at lunch time, when the rest of the office was quiet. They asked him to take a seat. He sat down, noticing that the soft purple cushion of the chair was warm, as if someone else had recently vacated it, and that the box of tissues on the table was nearly empty.
They smiled at him, looking up from their laptops every few sentences. They told him that they were making cut-backs and restructures across the organisation, and his area was one that was seen as a cost efficiency and his role would no longer exist. As they spoke Jerry’s mind began to wander, and he looked at the large screen TV bracketed onto the wall, and thought of ways he could steal it, as it was a far superior model to his telly. They gave him a document with details of his severance, his duties while on gardening leave, and information about the free confidential counselling service, should he want it. They asked if
he wanted to call someone. He thought for a moment and said, “no thank you”. Jerry got up from the chair and carefully pushed it under the table.
“Jerry?” Lucy said, “Jerry?”
He looked up startled.
“I have to go for a mammogram and a MRI.”
“What did he say?”
“He had a feel and thinks it’s nothing, thank goodness, but just in case, you know,
they want to see inside.”
Jerry pictured the Consultant routinely examining his wife’s left breast. Jerry thought that he’d love to see a photo of what it looked like inside. He enjoyed looking at photos of the human body in science books and seeing how it was made up of tissue, water, blood vessels and sinew all looped together in beautiful knots.
They sat outside another room in a low ceilinged corridor lit by humming strip lights. There was no tea or coffee or telly to watch, so Jerry ran his finger over the letter in his pocket, checked his emails and thought about how he’d tell Lucy.What would they say to the kids? Who would they tell? How would he deal with it? How would he tell the lads? Would he gather them around in the pub and just tell them that he’d lost his job and his wife had cancer? Would they feel sorry for him when he went for a piss at half-time and tone down their voices when he returned? Would it be the same, with her, with them, with anyone?
Lucy was called into a room with a yellow radioactive sign above the door, like some nuclear reactor. A skinny woman with shoulder length black hair walked down the corridor and sat next to Jerry.
“Mmm, excuse me, my wife is sitting there, she’ll be out in a minute,” Jerry said, and looked up at the woman, noticing that she was biting her raw fingernails.
“Oh,” she said, “but I was told to sit here by the Consultant, so I’d get noticed.”
“There are some other chairs over there,” Jerry said, pointing at them.
The woman didn’t move for a few minutes. Jerry’s foot lightly brushed her brown
leather boot, so he folded his legs the other way. She sighed heavily, stood up and sat in a chair on the other side of the corridor.
Jerry thought of the purple chairs in the ‘HR Confidential Room’, and how many
people must have sat on them over the past few days listening to bad news, and slowly emptying the box of tissues.
“Oh, don’t sit there,” the first woman said to a new arrival who went to sit next to
Jerry, “you don’t want to sit next to that gentleman!” she said mockingly.
“There are other free chairs over there,” Jerry said, “I’m holding this one for my
wife. She’ll be out in a minute.”
“I bloody hate people like that,” the first woman said loudly to her new chair
neighbour while staring at Jerry. “People who think they own the place, self-righteous twats,” she continued.
Her neighbour nodded and squinted at Jerry with her small eyes and crinkly face.
The door to the reactor opened, but it was only a nurse in green overalls and a hair net. She smiled generously at those waiting as her rubber shoes squeaked along the shiny corridor. Jerry all of a sudden felt very alone. He couldn’t get the words cancer or counselling out of his head. He wanted to feel the outside and see the inside for himself, to make sure they got it right, but what did he know? He’d only read the information leaflet. He was only the man with no job. All the words of the past two days poured back to him. Breast, cancer, surgery, restructure, radiotherapy, gardening, diagnosis, consultation, support, charity,
family, severance, counselling, confidential, chair.
A mobile phone rang. The first woman answered it.
“Hello? Look, I can’t talk now…I’m having a check up. Yeh, yeh, oh the hospital.
They found something. You know, a lump thingy. In my breast. Fuckin’ hurts. Yeh, look I can’t talk now. I’ll give you a call later, alright? Alright, I’ll talk to you later,” she said through quiet sobs.
The door opened again and those waiting looked up. Lucy sat down.
“Well?” Jerry asked.
“They don’t think it’s anything.”
“That’s good. Did they see what’s inside?”
“They clamped my breast with two metal plates and took some x-rays. I have to go
back upstairs. It’s nothing, you can go to work now.”
“No, no, I’ll stay with you,” Jerry held her hand.
Jerry got up from the chair. A new arrival sat down in his place.
Miki Lentin is a Creative Writing MA part-time student at Birkbeck University. He has appeared twice at MIR Live and been long-listed for the Michael McMullan Cancer Writing Prize. He is a Trustee of The Reading Agency, established London’s Knowledge Quarter and is taking a break from travelling to work @britishlibrary @mikilentin