Mum and I are sat in the pastel coloured waiting room of the local hospital. There's a woman sat opposite us with a catheter in a Tesco's carrier bag. The tube has both urine and blood in it.
'That painting doesn't look anything like Venice,' Mum points out. 'Not a gondola in sight.'
We are waiting for mum to be fitted with a prosthetic to even up the breast-less left side.
'They asked me if I wanted to have a reconstruction. They take muscle from your back. I said “What the bloody hell for?” And the nurse, she said, “Well some women -” “No, no” I said. “I'm not bothered.”
When mum came up here for her mastectomy she marched straight in to surgery. None of that wheeling in nonsense for her. My niece, Harri, almost walked in with her until a nurse pointed out that this was in fact the operating theatre. Quick hug, kiss on the cheek. 'Go home darlinnnk, I call you after.'
My mother is small and Maltese and fierce.
'I came round to the sound of people shouting at me. Wake up Rhoda! Wake up! Rhoda!' She pops a mint in her mouth. 'First thing I told them, I said, “Get my mobile, call Harriett, tell her I'm fine.”'
She had to stay in overnight which she hated.
'There was an 82 year old woman in the next bed holding a cushion to where her breast used to be and looking all tragic. I said to her; “What are you doing that for? It's all stitched up, nothing is going to fall out.” She whimpers at me. I was reading my book with that little light thing Sean got me. It was about this tribe. To join the tribe you had to remove a part of your body. A finger, an ear, a leg. Even the children. And the tribe is known as The Maimed Men. They are warriors. So I turn to the 82 year old and say “We're maimed!” Like, you know, we are warriors. She looks all skittish and says; “Oh don't say that!” She has become a challenge for me you know? Her drama. I keep throwing comments her way and she says; “You're very cheerful” but in a resentful way, you know? She is going to have the reconstructive surgery! Eighty Two! Why?'
'I guess she feels incomplete without her breast?' I hazard.
'But she's old, like me. A breast made out of back muscle with a fake nipple sewn on. It's bloody ridiculous on an octogenarian.'
We've been waiting an hour and mum is getting bored and mischievous. She kicks me when I'm not looking. Throws polo mints at me and punches me in the leg.
'Stop it or you're going to bed early without supper,' I say attempting to finish my crossword.
An elderly couple join us and mum stage whispers; 'That's her! That's the eighty two year old!'
'Quiet voice mum,' I mutter.
The woman with the catheter stares at us for a while and then tells mum that she had a double mastectomy four days ago and there are complications. Mum chats to her for a while and then whispers to me; 'Blood in the bag, must be her liver. Poor thing.' Mum was a Carer for fifty years and I'm pretty sure if left to it she could competently run a hospital single handedly.
Mum keeps poking me so I put aside my crossword.
'I saw this website,' I tell her. 'Where young women who have had mastectomy's get tattooed.'
'What?' Mum asks.
'Instead of reconstruction they have flowers and butterflies inked across their chests. It looks pretty.'
Mum laughs. 'I'd have two smiley faces.'
We have been waiting for ages and I start rolling a fag on the premise that it might have the same effect as when you're waiting for a bus. Mum rolls her eyes.
'What?' I say. 'I'm not going to smoke it in here am I.'
'No darlinnk, by all means roll a cigarette on a cancer ward, really sends out a message.'
We start giggling.
'Was there anyone else on your ward that night?' I ask.
'Yes, people were coming and going like a cattle market. There were two eighteen year old girls looking so upset. I said to them “Come on, its not so bad.” I told them I would probably end up walking around in town and my fake boob would fall out and being embarrassed I would just kick it to one side and keep walking. They were laughing at me by the end. They said “You're funny.” I said to them “Nothing is the end of the world.” Another woman came in at 11pm. Very late I thought. She was sat looking very...she was very fretful you know? I said to her to come sit on my bed. I said:
'What's the matter?'
'I have to have a scan.'
'So late at night?'
'I came this afternoon but they took too long and I had to pick the kids up from school. They told me to come back tonight.'
'So why are you so jittery?'
'I had to leave the kids with my husband and he's not very good with kids.'
Mum pauses in the story. 'He kept bloody texting her saying he doesn't know what to do! Stupid man, making her worry more. Useless.'
'Well I told her to tell the nurse she had to go home and she'd come back the next day when the kids were at school. She was too nervous you know? In the end I rang the bell and told the nurse and she arranged for her to come back. See, for me, that would be the hardest thing. If I had got the cancer when you were all little. When I was still young. I would have been so worried about you all. What if I died and other people had to look after you and they don't know your ways. That would have been terrible. I felt sorry for her you know, and with her stupid husband.'
The morning after the operation mum was up, showered, dressed and in full makeup by 7am. She walked to reception.
'I'm off now, bye.'
'Whoa! Wait! What?' The nurse ran after her. 'You can't go yet! You have to wait for the doctor to come and see you.'
'Bloody hell.' Mum traipsed back to the ward and paced for an hour.
'You know there are people in there that don't want to go home. I asked the nurse why and she said maybe there's no one to go home to. Or maybe they want a break from it all.'
Mum throws another mint at me.
'A nurse came with this little white silk bag with a red ribbon around it. It has a temporary cotton padding for the boob area in it. I say “Ok thanks, can I go now?” She looks with exasperation at me. “No Rhoda! Let's go to the bathroom and fit it for you.” I snatch it off her and shove it in. “There!” I say. She laughs at me. “No, look, it's too big.” I pull it out rip some cotton off and shove it back in. “Is that comfortable?” she asks. “Yes, can I go now?”'
In the afternoon she sat at home having a little M&S picnic my sister had brought over. Her grandchildren are there too. The two grandsons are teenagers and don't know what to say. Mum pulls out the cotton padding and throws it at them. They scream “Nannnnn nooooooooo!”
'It's better,' she says. 'They should understand what it is. Not wonder.'
I remember that day. I was in Australia, I couldn't be further away but I was in good company with a big drink in my hand when I finally got to speak to her on Skype.
'Are you alright?' I asked.
'Yes darlinnnk, fine. Harri and I are having fish and chips tonight.'
When mum went back for a checkup the following week her stitches had healed entirely.
Why is there no pain at all?' Mum asked the doctor. She hadn't taken so much as a paracetamol after the op.
'You're lucky,' he told her.
The nurse asked her if she'd looked at the scar.
'Of course I have,' she replied. 'How else could I wash?'
'And how did that make you feel?'
'I don't care,' mum answered.
'Can you look at it in the mirror for me now? So I can see that you're ok?'
Mum hates this sort of thing.
'Oh fine!' She has a look. 'See, fine. One boob. No boob. Ta-Da!'
'Did I tell you they offered me volunteer work?'
'No?' I say. 'How come?'
'Because by the time the doctor got round to see me I had stripped and made up four of the beds on the ward.'
'For christ's sake mum.'
'Well, they were busy and the sheets were there and I know how to do a hospital tuck.'
We have been sat for an hour and a half now and even by british standards its getting ridiculous. But even if we'd sat there for a week you still wouldn't hear me say a word against the NHS.
I wander over to reception.
'My mum is threatening to go home. Will it be long?'
There's been a mistake with waiting room allocations, apologies are made and mum is whisked off.
I head outside and stand under a sign that says 'This is an entirely no smoking environment.' I observe the hundred or so cigarette butts on the grass in front of me and light up thinking about who those cigarette butts belong to. Not the staff, they hide up the road around the corner. All those little butts with their own individual brands and stories. This one, bad news. This one, awaiting results. This one, relieved. This one, inconsolable.
Within twenty minutes we are in town, sat outside Monde eating eggs and drinking coffee under a canopy whilst rain thunders down all around us.
'Do you remember when I was little and you used to tell me that we were witches?' I ask mum.
'Yes darlink, of course.'
'You said it was because -'
'Because we both like ribbons and candles and can never bring ourselves to throw them away,' she smiles.
'Yes, that's right. I still feel that way about ribbons and candles.'
'Mum, what would you call this story if I were to write it?'
'The Inconvenience.' She laughs.
'That's a good title. Why?'
'Because when they told me I had cancer again they said “How do you feel?” And I said, “Inconvenienced”.'