Thursday, 11 December 2014

Day 11: I'm Still Me by Madeleine McDonald

“Not now, puss,” she told him as he greeted her, tail erect. “You’re a nice puss, but if I sit down and stroke you, I’ll never get up again. I need my bed.”
As she walked into the kitchen, the first thing she saw was a vase of fresh tulips on the table, a mixture of yellow and red blooms, with a note trapped underneath. “Shepherd’s pie in fridge. Have taken ironing home. Love you lots, Mum.”
Love you lots too, Mum. Tears stood in her eyes but the cat snaked round her legs, demanding attention. Even though Mum had been, she checked his food and water bowls. That much at least she owed him. She could not bear to give him away, not yet. His presence filled the flat, and the family downstairs had promised to give him a home.
“We adopted you from the rescue centre instead of having a baby,” she informed the cat. “Just as well, the way things turned out.”
Dominic had abandoned them both for a new life in Australia. You can’t ask me not to take the job. It’s my big chance. Holly had emailed him, but had received no answer. So much for Dominic deserving to know. She imagined him as embarrassed by the news of her condition as the teenage son from downstairs, who gulped whenever he saw her, and slunk by with a muttered greeting.
She fumbled with the buttons of her coat. They felt heavy and awkward, catching in the thick fabric. She leaned on the worktop and took a breather before she tugged the strap of her handbag over her head. The move dislodged the knitted hat, and she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Her eyes were drawn to the bald crown that eclipsed all other features.
She leaned forward, examining her reflection. “I’m still here. I’m still me.” She said it aloud, for emphasis. “This is still my flesh, these are still my bones.” She breathed on the surface of the mirror, drew a heart shape in the little patch of mist, and watched it fade. “My heart is still in service. Not that I can feel it, but I’m still here, so it must be working.” She traced the lines where once her eyebrows had grown. Below them, eyes stared back. Same eyes, different frame.
The baldness did not upset her. In the first stages of chemotherapy, Holly had attempted to trim and set what was left of her hair, buying a special baby brush for the purpose. Then one day she turned up with a bottle of wine and an electric razor. “We’d better do this while we’re both sober,” she joked, before attacking the remaining clumps.
It had been a good day when she had shed the last of her hair. It was surprising how liberated she felt once the deed was done. Move over Sinead O’Connor, I’m in control here. Afterwards, one of Mum’s friends had knitted her a selection of woolly hats to match her favourite outfits.
It was the invisible changes that devastated her, the ones deep inside, and those changes were so frightening she could not talk to anyone. “I’m still me. I can’t be an old woman, not yet.” She told the cat what she could not bear to tell her friends. “I’m twenty-eight and inside I feel eighty-two.”

About the author:
Madeleine McDonald lives on the Yorkshire coast, where the wind whistles up through the floorboards. She finds inspiration walking on the beach.

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