Book: Black River (2016)

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Two sheets of black glossy portent sealed his fate. The oncologist pointing with a stylus scraping the sheet, clinical in his manner of course, but what else was to be expected? It could just be pneumonia, he said, but that was highly unlikely. Too much was abnormal, too many blotches of uncertain fog behind the bones.

That proud, pumping chest that had once torn across fields of mud and grass, in rain and snow, clobbering other men to seize each fierce and hard-fought victory, one after the other. Those lungs that had thundered from the shell of a drunk tank, roaring with righteous agonized rage, later in his youth when things at home had finally all gone wrong. Now it was rendered a freeze-frame of death. Feeble, irregular crisscross of ribs, translucent over darkness and other clouds of great and immovable grey. The source of his pain. This was no flu.

Hardy, naked but for a gown, coughing into his hand before lying back on the strange, alien plastic. The great grey wheel of the machine at his feet, whirring softly and beeping, its circular toothless maw looming, waiting to take him in, digital numbers on a screen above and two glass circles on either side, like the compound eyes of some bulging cyborg insect or a pair of technological cold sores on the mouth of the machine. The nurse gently guiding his hands over his head, whispering meaningless words of comfort. The light in here so far from daylight that the room could be a hundred miles beneath the earth, yellow tepid luminescence like the pallor of a corpse.

They feed him into it, into the CAT scan, a crosshair of liquescent red lasers marking out his crumbling chest for future annihilation. Faint humiliation of his position, quiet grimace. Wait for it to be over. It might not be so bad.

Days later, Hardy waiting in reception, alcohol on his breath. More tests, more bad news to come, he can feel it. It shouldn’t be this fast, when is the health service ever this fast?

A young woman follows the whims of her son, toddler-aged, around the small table in the centre of the room. Shows him toys and books, fairy tales—Goldilocks, Sleeping Beauty, Mother Goose. Hardy watches with a grim smile, tries to keep his mind off it. Would he have ever had kids? Probably not. Now it was decided for certain.

Bronchoscopy this time, getting closer to the final certainty. More mundane, hollow pleasantries with the nurses. All so chipper and upbeat, professional nurturance of their demeanour. Hardy didn’t want or need it. Hardy on a bed, wheeled through labyrinthine corridors, doctors and nurses and consultants from all ethnicities and cultures and religions passing by. Why was their no sunlight? Probably interfered with the machines. Sensitive technologies for these most important of all life’s questions.

Hook him up to machines, tube to plunder his body, camera for the doctors to see and tiny claw to slice away the tissue for further analysis. Moderate anaesthesia and they say he should remain lucid (lucid though placid) but he passes out anyway. Dreams of spelunking through tunnels of red, raw flesh, viscid with the pus of disease. Somewhere else he is with Linda, walking in Coole Woods that time she told him about the assault, her just a girl, drunken on holidays, out of reach and violated. How it made him feel. Powerless.

At last, the final revelation. Drum-roll, applause, Small-cell lung cancer, extensive spread, inoperable, almost certainly incurable, standing ovation. Curtains fall. Right now, the doctor said, we need to look at how we can make this as comfortable as possible for you. Brian Hardy was on the outs at last.

April Fools’ Day came again and Hardy’s bank balance was imbued with a moderate replenishment. He could have told Downey or the girls at HR about his diagnosis and they would have given him time off work, probably would have even been decent enough to make out like it was only temporary, like it wasn’t Hardy himself who was only temporary. But no, he didn’t want the fuss and like the doctor had said right now the important thing was making his final days comfortable. The only time Hardy had ever really broached a semblance of comfort was when he was working. He needed it and he would stick with it for as long as he was physically able.

On April first he finished his work early—a follow up story on Emily to fulfil his promise to Mrs. Whelan, this time destined for relegation to the third page instead of the cover, and a few other generic write-ups from the preceding week in the city by the sea. He sent his work to Downey and then left without waiting for a reply.

After a brief trip to the ATM to receive his spoils, Hardy made his way next to the “E-Cigarette” store. It was time for a change, not like it would make much difference at this stage, but the cigarettes were simply causing him too much pain and now that he knew why, it was even harder to derive enjoyment around it. The lady at the store showed him how to use the new contraption, filled it with menthol-flavoured liquid that almost made it seem medicinal to inhale and then he was set. Dying dogs, new tricks, something like that.

After that, Hardy strolled down the pedestrianized plaza of Shop Street, past tourists and buskers and performance artists plying their trade in the soft warmth of the sunny spring evening. Puffing on his new machine like some sort of science-fiction Sherlock Holmes, he meandered finally into the King’s Head and ordered himself a pint of Guinness and a Jameson on the rocks.

Force of habit brought him back outside to drink, even though he probably could have inhaled his vapour inside, but regardless, the evening was pleasant and he might as well enjoy it. He wouldn’t have many more now. The drink was good and he savoured it, like he would have anyway on a new month’s payday, watching the girls of spring walk by with their bouncy joi de vivre.

The black cloak of night descended over the city and it started to get cold. Hardy moved from bar to bar, getting drunker, sloppier, tasting the wares of as many establishments as he could manage, like he didn’t know if he’d ever get the chance again. Eventually he ended up in some club, sometime long after midnight, holding himself up with both elbows on a counter, struggling to guide the straw to his lips. The bare black sky of the night was above him, the lush, verdant smoking area around him thronged with people, most of whom were barely half his age. Somehow he found himself in conversation with a woman from his own generation, she most likely humouring him in his state of maudlin, messy intoxication. She had daughters and he told her to cherish them, to look out for them. The world was harder on girls, he said, and they needed somebody to look out for them. She told him he looked like he needed somebody to look out for him himself and he asked her if she fancied taking up the task. She said she didn’t but smiled anyway, patting him on the shoulder before leaving him to find his own way home.

Hours passed and the bar stopped serving. People began to leave. No woman returned his smile and finally, beyond desperation, Hardy left alone. He sang a faint song as he zig-zagged, drunken, homeward up the dying streets of dawn. The stories were in for another week, the obligations fulfilled, and there was nothing else for him to do.


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