PUSHING A PEA UP YOUR NOSE
By Patricia Finney
Call in on Onion, check she has enough heroin.
This was on my way back from Mrs Tredurgan with terminal mouth cancer and before I got to Robby with muscular dystrophy, on the way out and fighting every step of the way. I took the road to the beetling black cliffs sticking out into the Atlantic where the cloud shadows rocket across the land and the clouds make their first hasty dump of rain, often while the sun is still shining.
It’s a beautiful drive and I didn’t see any of it. I was too busy nibbling away at worries about patients, wondering what to cook for dinner, carefully not thinking about Jim, would my ancient clutch hold out for a little longer? The car chunka-chunkaed a bit on the hill overlooking Lyonesse, but then coasted down into the little medieval town quite happily. Lyonesse has no bypass, being at the end of the world, fifteen miles further on than Penzance. We had to fight to keep the branch line up to Penzance open, you only get one train an hour. For anything serious, the ambulances have to drive fifty miles up the A30 to Treliske hospital outside Truro. The kids love the ride and so do the ambulance drivers. No tiny twisty little lanes, it’s dual carriageway, put the siren on and motor. Lovely.
More chunka chunka climbing the hill to the derelict tourist trap where Onion had her caravan. Onion was a worry to me and so I stopped just inside the gate of MiniWonders to check my drugs and the batteries for pumps and my records. I checked them twice because I was terrified of making mistakes. Thinking back to that time, I was so tired, so generally overstressed and under-rested, I was twitchy and bad-tempered, barely functioning. But I was too tired to know that, had no idea how I felt. There was a brittle shell all around me, like a cast. It had grown slowly, to protect me, and I no longer even knew it was there. I just carried on through the days, keeping going, very careful not to feel anything.
MiniWonders had been one of those World in Miniature follies built in the thirties, in very pretty gardens, now exuberantly overgrown. They had the Eiffel Tower, Leaning Tower of Pisa (collapsed), the White House, the Parthenon, the Pyramids, Sphinx and, of course, the Taj Mahal. They added a restaurant, so called, they added a children’s play area for dry days, they added an indoor play area for the other 362 days of the year, they advertised, they did special offers and in the end, of course, they still went bust. Back in the days when going to France was an adventure, people would pay to gawp at small-scale reproductions of places they could never hope to see. Nowadays... tourists know when they’re being trapped. They don’t want to look at a Taj Mahal the size of a garden shed covered in white snowcem when they still hadn’t developed the pics from last year when our Sharon was standing in front of the actual marble one and our Richie was giving her a big kiss, and wasn’t it hot and wasn’t it beautiful, it really did look as if it was made out of sugar.
Even with the now leprous MiniWonders looming surreally out of the green, it was a gobsmackingly beautiful place; built on the same ancient black rocks they have in the Lizard, only higher, sticking out further, the great waves pounding away at them and getting nowhere, the sea stretched to the horizon and sand happening by magic exactly where the surfers wanted it. St Jude lighthouse, one of the last to be automated, looks down like the citadel of a wizard, so long as you ignore the evil sigils painted on its side by enterprising youth: Jimmy fukd Sue, Tanya u r a bich. Interesting and rare wildflowers, I’m told. Occasional seals. Frequent dolphins. Sometimes basking sharks. Gorse. Brambles. Wild roses. Evening primrose.
Surfers love it because something about the shape of the cove puts enormous reliable waves that have come all the way from the Bahamas right in on the sandy beach at the north side of the peninsular. Onion’s caravan was perched on the cliff above the cove, near the Taj Mahal, as close to the edge as she could get, with surfers’ tents and benders scattered around her. Lyonesse one side, surf the other, St Jude ahead of her and, as she boasted, freedom all around.
I parked my car in the essential secondary carpark, the one they built so people could sit in their cars and eat their picnics and look out at the fantastic Atlantic with the Taj Mahal on their right. Essential because the older English especially would never dream of venturing more than five steps from their car in order to eat their picnics on grass surrounded by wildflowers. Hayfever! Ants! Wasps! No wonder their children went to Katmandu and their grandchildren fight mud at Glastonbury.
I paused as I got out. There was an extremely hairy-looking motorbike parked near Onion’s caravan, it practically growled at me as I went past. I assumed it was a Harley Davidson, or whatever they’re called. I could see that Benjy, the surfer who was currently on duty, was pottering around outside doing something mysterious with Onion’s herb garden. When she’d been less ill, Onion had been a busy gardener and now green stuff and bright blue lobelias and hot pink and white petunias exploded all around her caravan in that vulgarly tropical Cornish way.
“Oh... ah... hi.” Benjy never recognises anyone because his brain is completely blasted with chemicals, partly dope. Wherever can he get it from? Could it be the polytunnel brigade? No, he grows it because Onion needs it so badly and the pillocks who run the world have designated marijuana a dangerous drug which is so evilly terrible that a doctor who can prescribe heroin if he wants, has to apply to the Home Office to prescribe marijuana.
Sorry about the soap box. “Who’s there?” I asked him, gesturing at the Harley.
Benjy looked puzzled. “Oh... yeah... some guy. Turned up this morning. Caravan was getting crowded. So I... uh...”
He gestured at some nice five-fronded plants he was treating with bright blue slug pellets. You have to, in Cornwall, we have some of the biggest and greediest slugs in the world here.
“She all right?”
Benjy shook his head. “I suppose.”
Most people are shocked by what an ugly business it is to die of cancer. That’s why most people like it tidied away into hospitals so they don’t have to look at it. But not Onion’s surfer brigade. They were shocked, they were frightened and disgusted, but they kept coming back when they said they would, and doing things their parents would have fainted dead away on the spot even to watch. Which parents probably gave them hell every time they met for not having a proper job in the meeja or something.
I looked at the Harley, then I went back to my car, put my drugs bag in the boot, locked everything up tight. Oh yes, there are people scummy enough to mug nurses and social workers.
My stomach tightened as I went up to the caravan, and even though I was telling myself not to be so paranoid, I still listened before I went in. Yes, there are even people scummy enough to steal drugs from terminal cancer patients.
Which is how I heard his voice before I actually met him personally. You could say that everything else stemmed from that, because his voice was beautiful. Deep, quite soft, tinged with a hard-to-place flavour of something that I thought at first was Essex.
“Come on, Lily.” he was saying, “I can get you out of this place, looked after properly....”
“Why would I want to get out of the most beautiful place in the world.” said Onion’s breathless voice, “And it’s Onion, I told you.”
“But it’s a bloody caravan.”
“So what, it’s mine.”
“Who’s looking after you?”
“The boys. They take it in turns, I’m never alone unless I ask to be.”
“What, like that wasted specimen outside?”
“Yes, he’s Benjy and he’s sweet.”
“Lily, you need round the clock nursing...”
“Call me Onion or I’ll kick you out.”
“I never realised. I never knew. I wish you’d...”
“Oh shut up, you silly great git, I’d have told you if I’d wanted you to know. I don’t know who put me in the Big Issue but when I find out...”
“It was me, Li... Onion. Me, I did it. I wondered where you were. And then one of your boys rang me. I couldn’t fucking believe it when he said... When he told me. You. You were....”
“Dying? Well he shouldn’t have rung. I don’t want you and I don’t want your help.”
Silence. I wished I hadn’t listened now, it was all a bit personal. I turned around and lit a fag. Yes, I know, I know. I tell people, I do it so I won’t be a burden on what’s left of the national health service when I get old. In my family you generally have to shoot us once we roll past 100, totally marble-less but fighting fit.
It was Onion’s voice again. She was sounding very breathless, worse than she should have done.
“All right. I’m sorry. I do want you, I’m pleased to see you, really. I just don’t want your help. OK? You can stick around, so long as you promise, no helping.”
“I promise.” said that deep velvet voice, “No helping.”
“Now just sit there and be decorative, like you used to say. And I can’t believe what you did to your face.”
“Good, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s horrible.”
“It’s all for you, darling Lily.”
“I’ll throw something.”
“All right. I’ll be good.”
I stamped on the fag, knocked and opened the door. I expected to see Onion disposed on her couch like Snow White and Cleopatra rolled into one - and she was. Postcards of flowers, paintings and tourist sites covered the walls. Great rolls and swags of material draped over the bed, hung with herbs and little bottles of essential oils and crystals and feathered Amerindian dream-catchers, all in dramatic shades of purple and crimson interspersed with white muslin. Onion herself was in a purple crushed velvet robe. Her fine blonde hair and bone structure say that she was once thoroughly beautiful, but since then the cancer has swelled her up here and sucked her out there so you couldn’t call her even presentable. She still wears a lot of make up, sometimes built up in layers like an archaeological site until one of the boys rebels and takes a swipe at it with baby lotion.
She likes to hold court does Onion, so there’s a slightly broken managing director’s chair saved from the dump, also draped with crimson to hide the boring brown knit covers and the motheaten foam seat, crammed in next to her bed with the various machines she needs behind it. And in the hotseat was... Well, I honestly didn’t expect the owner of that voice to look like that.
He was big, not just tall but broad, wide shoulders, wearing the mixture of oily denim, horrible faded black t-shirt and scuffed leather jacket that I expected from someone with a Harley. Quite fit, though there was an incipient gut giving his big silver belt buckle a bit of work. He had something... what do you call it? Presence? Charisma? He filled up the caravan, even with Onion in it who was not a shrinking violet of a personality herself. No wonder gentle wasted Benjy had felt threatened.
He was bald, shaved not fallen out. And he had a tattoo over the whole of his face which was either some kind of swirly psychedelic spiderweb or something Celtic. Or maybe Maori. Or something. Horrible. Mesmerisingly horrible. You were so distracted by the thing, you simply couldn’t work out what the face underneath might look like, which was obviously the intention.
He looked at me, clocked the uniform, then my expression and stood up quite politely, ducking his head under the roof, which didn’t help him look less threatening, not at all.
“Oh, it’s Anna.” said Onion brightly, “I told you about her, she’s my dealer.”
Ha ha, funny joke. Well, it isn’t a joke really. Onion had a pump so she could self-medicate with diamorphine which I came every day to supervise. It had taken one hell of a fight to get it for her, during which her boys had scored the illegal stuff for her to stop her crying in the night, and I had gathered them together when we installed it and told them that if any of it was unaccounted for, I would personally shop the one in charge.
The leader of her boys, Jog, who had been one of her many lovers before the cancer got the upper hand, had told me quietly that it wouldn’t be necessary. It hadn’t been so far. The stuff used tallied perfectly with the little computer chip.
Onion smiled at me, the secret smile she kept for great jokes, and she didn’t introduce her visitor. I nodded at him, professional, wondering how I was going to get him to leave. Presumably this was another of her many past lovers, which would upset Jog again, the daft creature.
“Out.” said Onion, less tactful than me, “Me and Anna have got business.”
The Tattoo-man smiled and that was a bit of a shock too because it was a charming smile, with good teeth, and he had quite stunning blue eyes as well. Presumably before the tattoo he was quite tasty. I shuddered inwardly. Why do they do it to themselves? Why want to look ugly? I’d wanted to be pretty all my life, and had to settle for being presentable, square, but tidy. Nice hair. Good skin. Nice girl. Etc. He shut the door quietly behind him.
We did our business, some of it messy and personal. I had to nip out and get my drugs bag out of the car, and I saw Tattoo standing over Benjy in the clifftop garden, who was explaining enthusiastically about the really good bits of his herbs. They seemed to be getting on all right.
Onion was looking white-lipped with tiredness when I got back. She was on her way out and her body was slowly disintegrating under her, and yet you couldn’t tell how long it was going to take and every single second of it had to be lived first, by her. I have seen perfectly healthy middle aged women simply sit down and die after their husbands conk out and I have seen bodies so riddled with AIDS related illnesses that they seem like a set of syndromes strung together with bone and still they live on. My job was not to cure her, but simply to make sure she was comfortable and in the place she wanted to be. Quite a revolutionary concept, in its way. Even five years before we’d have got a court order and stuck her in hospital whether she wanted it or not. But since then the accountants had looked more carefully at the figures and realised that it was immensely cheaper for Onion and her ilk to be looked after inna communidy (as they put it, being believers in the magic of words and that buzzword “community” above all) than it was for her to tie up an intensive care bed for weeks and then be marked down as a negative statistic (death) to be counted against them later on. Just occasionally the numbers add up to something better.
“Who’s that?” I asked when we’d finished, as full of nosiness as anyone else.
“Oh that’s an old friend, a very old friend, from way back.” She giggled.
“Why’d he call you Lily?”
“What he always used to call me. To annoy me.”
“What?” she narrowed her eyes at me as I settled her back on the bed they’d rigged up to be adjustable.
“Looks a bit suss to me.” I said.
She snortled with giggles, partly from the new drugs coming in. “Oh, he’s very suss.” she said, “Mad, bad, dangerous to know. But he’s all right.”
I left it, tidied up, did paperwork for the drugs, more paperwork for other things, quick report form, another form.
Outside I found the Tattoo-man leaning against my car with his hands in his jacket pockets, obviously waiting for me. I nearly turned and ran because I really don’t like it when people wait for me. You have to be so careful, even down in South Cornwall, a very long way past world’s end.
Particularly you have to be careful with people who look like the Tattoo-man. I’m sorry, but you do. Especially when you’re carrying a little treasure trove of drugs.
So I reached in my bag, fished out my keys and held them between my knuckles, locked the bag, and walked forward, heart thudding.
“Hi.” I said noncomitally, “Can I help you?”
“Yes, I want to talk to you.”
“I have got another appointment.”
I saw a struggle there: he wasn’t used to people not wanting to talk to him. He started to say something curt, then stopped himself, used the smile. I say “used”. It was totally deliberate.
“I wanted to ask you about... Onion.”
“All right. I know you can’t tell me anything confidential. I just want to know if she... if she needs anything.”
“Like... I dunno.” He raised his big shoulders helplessly, “Like somewhere better to stay than a bloody caravan.”
“Do you think I haven’t tried to convince her to go into a hospice? She won’t do it. She says she loves it here and she wants to be die here. For what it’s worth, she wants her ashes scattered here.”
He stuck his fists deeper in his jacket, he stared at his boots and he took a deep hesitant breath.
“Electricity? Heat? Nurses?”
“Could you supply them?”
He heard my skepticism and looked up. Suddenly blue eyes drilled into mine. “Yes. I could.”
Oh really, I thought, and how? By nicking them?
I’d been through this list before with Jog who had the surfer’s attitude to time and shortages - enough time and you find you don’t really need what you’re short of.
“All right. In due course she’ll probably need a proper electrical supply. She’s going to need a proper mobile, not the card-operated one she’s got now. Maybe satellite TV. And eventually, she may well need round the clock professional nursing, which I doubt you’ll get anybody to do in that caravan, as you so rightly imply.”
He nodded once. “Anything else?”
“What’s your interest, Mr... er...”
He smiled slowly and humorously, didn’t fill in the gap I’d left. “Oh I think I’m one of her boys, Ms Clements.”
He held out his hand, after a moment I shook it. His hand was dry, his grip firm. Something else worrying about it.
I left him there, chunka chunkaed away, struggling with extremely unworthy envy. Of course, I didn’t envy Onion the thing that was killing her, though of course, something would eventually kill me. What I did envy very much was Onion’s ability to attract men, Onion’s ability to order them about, Onion’s bland assumption that every man she met would fall at her feet and become her slave. And the infuriating thing was that they still did, even now she had lost the fragile beauty which had entranced Jog, they still did. The Tattoo-man wasn’t the first lover from her past who had tried to come and see her, probably wouldn’t be the last. He was definitely the most worrying. I quietly took down the number of his motorbike as I passed it, just in case.
Which was when I realised what had worried me about shaking hands with him. His hands were oily as bikers’ hands usually were, but his nails were clean. In fact manicured.
I decided I would trust the Tattoo-man exactly as far as I could throw him, which was about six feet.
Then I drove off to see Robby, fighting all the way, bound to lose, and his crumbling parents and his furious little sister and, god help me, his sad puzzled dog.