‘When you think I’m hurrying you but you’re taking an eternity over every damn thing’ by Minifreda Grovetzski
By Wasafiri Editor on April 23, 2021 in
‘I need you, Simi, please call.’
I message back. ‘Working til two. Then I’m all yours.’
But at two, I’m hungry.
‘I need you.’
I ignore it.
‘Got to be at the doctors before three.’
Throwing down my uneaten sandwich, I pick up car keys, message ‘on my way’ and make it across the borough in seven minutes flat. He’s crouched by the front porch like something trodden on, squashed but still squirming. I get out, open the passenger door, lift him by the armpits. He shrieks, knees set solid, legs right angled. ‘It’s half past two,’ I say, ‘get in.’
‘Give me five minutes.’
‘For Christ’s sake, Simi.’
‘We can’t miss this.’ I’ve no idea how the appointment has materialised but, terrified of losing my chance of speaking to his doctor, I bundle him into the passenger seat as gently as I can. He roars. ‘Oh honey, I’m sorry,’ I say and hug him, stroke his screwed–up face, eyes just slits and mouth tight shut, pouting where it’s toothless. I drive four hundred yards and stop. ‘Out,’ I say, ‘it’s twenty to three.’
‘Greg, you can do this. Get out. I’ll go back to yours, park the car and run up here again.’
‘Nooooooo, there’s no time, there’s no time. Help me!’ he screams.
‘I need to park the fucking car!’ I scream back.
‘Leave the fucker here,’ he yells, ‘I need you. I can’t do it. I can’t do it.’
‘I can’t leave the car here.’
‘It’s a bus stop.’
He peels himself out. Stumbles to the railing. Reels slowly up the path through the surgery staff car park as though he’s making his way along the deck of a ship in a heavy swell. I drive down the adjacent side street, kill the engine, leap out and run.
I find him by the door, squatting, with a brew and a dog–end.
‘Oh no,’ I say, ‘you get inside right now.’
‘Just give me a minute to finish this.’
‘Greg, you said before three.’
‘Fuck this thing.’ He flinches. Twists himself about. Curses again. ‘Doctor knows I’m coming. I said I was waiting for you.’
I look down at him not looking up. You’re frightened, I think.
‘Simi. I need to finish up. And you need to get your knickers untwisted. What day is it?’
‘What time is it?’
‘About ten to three,’ I look at my phone, ‘Jesus, it’s two minutes to. I’m going in.’ He follows, teetering and twitching like an insect with some legs pulled off it.
Inside the receptionist is cool. The cream-painted waiting room is spattered with flu jab invitations and tips on how to spot meningitis and warnings on not going to A and E unless you absolutely deserve it. There aren’t many people in here. All of them move away from us. I get paper towels from the toilet so he can gag up. Then I begin.
‘So. There was time. To park the car at yours and run back.’
‘What are you on about, Sim? You lost your rag.’ He coughs up something rotten, moans and clutches at his knees but I go on.
‘I could’ve parked the car legally and come back.’
‘What the fuck is your problem?’
‘I’ll get a ticket because of you.’
‘I’m on a double yellow.’
‘Oh,’ he groans, itching his cheeks and rocking, ‘why are you doing this?’
‘Because I’m going to get a ticket that we can’t afford and it’s annoying that you told me I couldn’t take the car back when I could’ve.’
‘To yours. Because there was time.’
‘You know what your problem is, Sim? You just get yourself in such a state.’
‘Only when you’re being stupid, Greg.’
‘Fuck’s sake, I’m in agony.’
His head is so far down between his knees that the scarf tied around his hair touches the floor. Eyes closed, struggling to breathe, unable to find a position that doesn’t make him wince. I am suddenly ashamed of my point scoring. ‘Sorry,’ I rub his back. He turns his face up, grimacing, but raises one eyebrow and gives me the look that says I love you. There’s a grin buried so deep in his eyes, eyes the colour of stewed tea, that I can barely see it. But it tells me he’s pleased that he was able to wind me up. Groaning, he turns back to the floor.
The doctor smiles, but gently, and welcomes us, and waits until Greg has enough breath to speak, and doesn’t interrupt in the long pauses when the diseased lung has to refill with air or unclog itself into one of the paper towels. He trusts this doctor.
Greg asks if he should have the chemotherapy that the oncologist has prescribed.
The doctor doesn’t say yes. The doctor says, ‘Hmm… well… oncologists… they would say that, wouldn’t they?’ He asks what chemotherapy drugs have been suggested. Greg doesn’t know.
I say ‘Cisplatin Permetrexed with a 20% reduced dose first round and two further cycles three weeks apart.’
The doctor smiles. Greg gives me the look. When the doctor asks Greg what he wants to achieve, Greg says ‘a miracle.’
The doctor’s voice is as kind as any voice I ever heard when he says, ‘There’s no such thing as a miracle, Greg.’
There is silence until Greg says, ‘Would you have the chemo, Doctor?’
I think Greg is crying. He says, ‘Thank you Doctor, thanks Simi, I don’t know what I’d do without you both.’ The doctor says ‘Greg I sense you are ashamed, but there’s no need. You don’t have to thank me. I’m your doctor, doing my job. Simi’s your friend. You don’t have to thank her either.’ I trust this doctor.
‘There’s too much pain,’ I say, ‘because we have no morphine.’
Greg says, ‘I use too much.’
I’m ready to plead. ‘We always run out. Every single week. Then we’re like this. It’s so hard to get the prescription and then the morphine. It sounds easy but it’s hard.’
The doctor, nods, doubles the dose and gives us a monthly prescription. ‘Are you drinking the energy drinks?’ he says.
‘Yes,’ says Greg.
‘No,’ I say, ‘we only have chocolate left and chocolate is horrible.’
‘I’ll prescribe them in vanilla,’ says the doctor.
I clutch the prescription tight as we leave. Greg collapses outside.
‘Chemist,’ I say.
‘Give me a minute.’
‘Now. Come to the car.’
‘You’ll have to bring it.’
‘Look at me.’ He’s almost supine on the dirt. ‘Bring it. Beep the horn. I’ll walk down to you.’ He looks as though he’s going to sleep. He yawns.
I drive the car back into the bus stop outside the surgery. I beep the horn.
Nothing. People at the bus stop stare.
I beep the horn.
A bus approaches. I put on hazard warning lights. People at the bus stop shrug their shoulders. Point. Tut. I beep the horn.
I curse. The bus driver shakes his fist. The cars behind are tooting. I beep the horn.
I beep the horn.
A shadow moves in the bushes outside the surgery doors. Before it looks like him, it looks like an animal. He wobbles upright. Totters toward me. Stops every three steps. Leans almost double over the railing, rises, stumbles, leans. I see my friend with the eyes of a stranger and I am shocked.
The square, cotton scarf wrapped around his hair is tall with the solid matter underneath it and topped with sunglasses. Raybans, of course, but with one lens missing. Strands of black hair streaked with grey stick out over his ears. Face dark with dirt and lined. Eyebrows greying. Eyes slit. Mouth twisted with a dark spot on the bottom lip where he sucks the tube. Dirty orange T-shirt beneath zipped–up tracksuit top. Long hands with blackened fingers dangling from loose arms. Waxed khaki coat. Skinny jeans showing grey long johns, donned against winter, through their torn knees. Camel–coloured boots, holed like a hobo’s, that would be funny if they weren’t for real. Gait of an old man prodded out of a wheelchair. I jump out, open the passenger door. Help him in. Again, the brittle legs won’t fold. He shrieks.
‘Where are we going?’
‘Give me a minute.’
It’s gone half four. I want to go out tonight. I need to be in town at seven thirty. There’s still time. But I can see it shrinking. ‘Right,’ I say, ‘chemist.’
‘No chance. Not now, Sim. I can’t.’
‘You have to. We need morphine.’
‘What day is it?’
‘Thursday. Morphine.’ I say firmly, and drive nine hundred yards down the street, past the flat to the chemist. He doesn’t move. ‘Please,’ I say, ‘you only have to go in and back.’
‘Give me a minute.’
I turn down a side street and switch off the engine. He’s mumbling now. Words I cannot understand. I reach out, stroke his cheek, rub his back. I touch his sore right knee. He moans. He cries. He sleeps. I wait. Then I say, ‘Right, Greg, chemist,’ and start the car.
‘What the fuck are you doing?’
‘Driving to the chemist.’ I turn into the main road and pull up outside again.
‘I can’t. You just don’t understand. You rush me. You’re ridiculous. I can only go slow. In my head. In my bones. Everything hurts. I’m hurting. Please.’ He shudders.
‘But morphine,’ I say, ‘will make it easier.’ I touch his shoulder.
‘Jesus Christ, Simi,’ he yells. ‘I’m not a fucking touchy–feely guy, you know. Christ. When you don’t have any gear, everything fucking hurts. Don’t touch me. Every time you fucking touch me it fucking hurts. It hurts. Stop touching me for fuck’s sake.’
‘Fine.’ I say, ‘absolutely bloody fine.’ I drive back down the side street. Park. Wait. He mumbles, half unconscious again. I think he’s muttering something about miracles.
‘Greg, it’ll only get more difficult to go in.’
‘OK,’ I say, ‘have it your way.’ I drive back to the flat. Turn off the engine. ‘We’ll just sit here then.’ I lean back, eyes closed. After half an hour I come to my senses, ‘We have to go now. Right now. I’ve got somewhere to be and I’m not missing it. I have a life too.’ How stupid. Because he doesn’t, of course.
‘Where are we?’
‘At the flat.’
‘What day is it?’
‘I got to see Jackson.’
‘After the chemist.’
It’s five forty–five. The chemist shuts at six. I start the car.
‘Where are we going?’
‘Chemist, then we’ll do Jackson.’
Outside the chemist I open the passenger door, push him out screaming and park down the side street just as the parking warden bounces up, crowlike, with his little ticket machine. I start the car, turn left past the chemist, circle twice and third time around, as I’m on the opposite side, I see him. I can’t believe my eyes. I giggle so violently that I snort. He’s staggering under the weight of a cardboard box big enough to crush him. Still giggling, I turn and pull up at the chemist but he and the box have disappeared. My laughter evaporates. I search the street.
I call him all the foulest names I can think of before I spot him. He’s somehow made it to the other side of the road, God only knows how, and is wobbling about among a group of open-mouthed, uniformed, secondary school children. They gape fried chicken, taking verbal bets on how long he’ll take to fall over. I pull up. Get out. Put the box in the back. Put him, weeping, in the front. Drive back to the flat.
‘Christ,’ he gasps, ‘I thought I’d had it. What the fuck’s in that thing?’
‘Energy drinks,’ I say, ‘but don’t panic they’re vanilla not chocolate.’ He glances sideways, gives me the look and then we are giggling hysterically, unsure if this is pain or pleasure, but giving up to it feels so good. I get a box of morphine, pull the open brew from his coat pocket, put it in his hand and shove three pink pills in his mouth. He swigs.
‘Call Jackson.’ I throw thirty quid at him and start the car. Drive six hundred yards to the shop where they sell brew to me for two thirds of the normal price. Some shops sell it cheaper to Greg because they feel sorry for him. This one sells it cheaper to me. We’ve no idea why. Greg always says, ‘It’s because he fancies you, Sim’. I always say, ‘It’s because I buy so much of it for you, mate’.
I get three cans and we drive back to the flat. Six thirty.
‘Did you call Jackson?’
‘Did you eat?’
‘Course I didn’t eat. You think I could eat?’
Chemotherapy depends on him being a certain weight. It’s taken a lot of effort to gain it. It cannot be lost. I know he can barely open the fridge. Too anxious. Too stoned. Too weak. Too nauseous. Too full of goo. Too tired. We get out of the car and sit beside the bins leaning with our backs against the wall where all the gas meters are broken open.
‘Give me the keys, I’ll take the box up.’
‘What day is it?’
I take the box up, come back outside and sit next to him again. He still moans, but softer now. Jackson pulls up. Greg lurches over to him and back. Then it takes forever to get up the stairs. Every slow step measured in gasps.
I’m confused by this new knee pain. ‘I think it must always be there,’ I say, ‘the morphine just masks it. See? The morphine does do something. You don’t think it does. But it does.’
He grunts between the gasps. We wait for the breathing to come back. Do the second flight.
‘We can’t run out again,’ I say as he wheezes and clutches at the bannister. ‘I know it’s not the same as the gear but it’s our safety net. See?’
‘Simi,’ he pants, ‘don’t fucking talk while I’m trying to get up here. It’s doing my head in.’
We fall into the flat. He goes straight to the balcony door. Opens it. Leans out into the dark air. Rasping. ‘Don’t fucking talk.’ Turns around, hacks hard into the bin, falls onto the sofa, lies moaning.
I go to the fridge. Empty out the uneaten stuff. Make a sandwich for later. Plate up cheesecake and cream. Open the box of mini sausage rolls. Take out two eggs, a slice of bread, a tomato. Whip the eggs with turmeric that might cure cancer and black pepper that increases its potency. Add as much fattening butter as I can without making them disgusting. Put them in the microwave.
He creaks himself up to a semi-recline. Rips a little square of silver foil off the roll and another to wrap round the pencil to make the tube, his nose caressing the table.
Microwave, mash, microwave, mash, microwave, mash. Toast the bread. Add more butter to the eggs. Spread as much on the toast as possible. Cut it nice. Plump the scramble into the bowl. Make it all look appetising. Take it to him.
He’s unpicked the clingfilm. Emptied it onto the square of foil. Fingers shaking. Right knee tremoring. Holds the lighter underneath. Melts grey solid to black trickle. That sickly smell. Sucks smoke through the tube. Face invisible. Just the Raybans staring at me, half blind from the headscarf as he hunches. Inhaling.
Like Lazarus he rises.
Gives me the look.
‘Christ,’ he says, ‘what a fucking day, Simkin. Got a fag?’
Minifreda Grovetzski writes prose, poetry, and articles, but her passion is creative non-fiction. She is completing a book on the experiences of care-workers on the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic, and a friend’s journey through the mental health institutions of the mid-twentieth century, exploring the extraordinary drama that can be found within ordinary lives.
You can enter the 2021 Wasafiri New Writing Prize here