SAWC 2010 Third Place

The Colours of Choice by Ann Kern

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Henderson, you can't leave till Doctor's seen you."

The nurse moved off and Alison settled back against the crisp, linen pillowcase with a sigh. There was no choice really, she hated making a fuss. She wondered which ‘Doctor' it would be. She never thought of them as ‘her' doctors, they were temporary, just as she was temporary. Old Doctor Katz hadn't been part of her life for months now, not since the pain had taken up residence and he sent her along to the oncologist to be prodded and poked and scanned and biopsied...

Hospital life went on around her, while Alison worried if medical aid would cover everything this time. She used to deal with all that, but lately the pills and the pain and the eternal weariness made her forgetful, made it hard to concentrate, and she had asked Delia to take over. Delia was their youngest, the only one with a head for figures. No one knew where that came from; Alison was artistic while Paul was the practical type, not all that good with numbers. She should ask Delia how much was left of her oncology allowance, even if she got fobbed off with generalities again.

In the days before the pain came, she knew those things without having to ask anyone, just as she would know if they could afford another call to Tricia in New York because she so wanted to hear her voice, or to Michael in Perth. He had wanted them to move there a few years back, but she couldn't imagine living in Australia, she found the accent so unattractive. Paul had asked Michael to take a look at the job market for him, but it was less promising than they were led to believe and the idea was quietly dropped.

Perhaps that had been a mistake, one of several over the years. The medical insurance was better in Australia, wasn't it? If she asked Michael, it would only upset him - he got upset easily, especially about them not following him out there. And he hated talking about her illness. Only Tricia did that. Tricia understood.

She knew she could look it up on the internet, but the bright screen tired her eyes and the discomfort of sitting upright at the desk in that hard chair - she couldn't do it for more than ten minutes at a stretch now, and their internet connection was achingly slow. Should have upgraded, of course, but no one else had complained. She used to read foreign blogs and news sites, liked the sense of no question being unanswerable, loved having the world at her fingertips. Paul wasn't fond of technology, so after Delia moved out the old desktop had become her personal luxury and she didn't feel right asking him to spend money on a laptop and a good ADSL line just for her.

When she found the lump, she had bypassed Dr Katz and gone straight to her gynae. The first shiver of fear had come when she mentioned there was something not right with her breast and the secretary moved her appointment from ten days in the future to the following morning. After the surgery, while she was trying for calm and thinking positive thoughts, she had used the medical sites to read about post cancer care, what to eat, how to change your lifestyle, boost your immune system. As far as money would allow, she had taken charge of her recovery, setting her immune system on the promised road to invulnerability.

When the pain came to live with her, she was stunned, almost offended. She had done everything right, surely she had beaten it? But late at night the gnawing in her stomach that kept her from sleep told its own tale. She might have beaten it once, but victory had left her complacent, unprepared for its older, uglier sister.

Or brother. This pain was masculine: harsh, uncompromising, lacking in empathy. It did its job, which was to tell her she was broken inside, and refused to live comfortably beside her, unlike the discomfort after the mastectomy. That had been female pain, it understood there were times when she needed to breathe, to rest. This one said no, she could rest when it was done with her. Even after the drip and the new pills, even now she could feel him lying coiled, waiting for her to get home where there was no white-clad magician to drive him back.

The rattle of trolley wheels announced lunch. She looked at the cottage pie, sloppy mince with soft potato sitting in a pool of thin sauce, and her stomach heaved once, again. She felt the pain laughing, waiting for this slop to slide down, give it an excuse to surface. Carefully she pushed back the tray and swung her legs over the side of the bed. Her slippers were on the far side of the locker, but the soles were slippery and going barefoot on the ward's smooth floor seemed safer. She seldom felt steady on her feet these days.

Their bathroom was occupied so she started down the passage, only to be stopped by one of the nurses. "Where are you going, Mrs. Henderson?" She had a bright, condescending voice, and Alison felt like a schoolgirl again, out of class during lesson time and spotted by one of the prefects.

"I need the bathroom, ours is busy. I think I'm going to be sick."

"You should have rung for a pan." She radiated disapproval, her tone made it clear Alison should have known better. "Anyhow, you can't use that one, it's for wheelchair patients. You have to go to the end, turn left, it's on your right."

She pointed, impatient to be off. Clearly she felt a patient able to get out of bed wasn't sick enough to fuss over.

The corridor stretched endlessly and Alison almost went back to wait her turn in the ward, but the nurse would see and wonder at that, she might even come back and ask. There seemed no option. One step at a time she told herself, setting off. The carpet was flat and smooth beneath her feet, the white walls bright under eternal lights.

Her route would take her past the nurses' station, and she wondered if they enjoyed this artificial world with its constant temperature and no real day and night. Though they could still look outside when they went on the wards, of course. She had been in Intensive Care after her op, and that was like living on a ship, in one of the inner cabins. She had never liked that idea, in fact going on a cruise had never appealed to her at all, though Paul would have loved it.

The alarm buzzed when she was almost level with the station, startling her. The nice blonde sister and the nurse who had told her she couldn't leave yet stood near an open locker, consulting clipboards and a computer screen. Responding instantly to the sound, the sister came round the counter and sped off down the passage, while the nurse made a quick call on the house phone before following her in the direction Alison had just come from. Emergency.

She stopped to lean against the counter and look back, curious to see which ward they entered, her eye passing over the open locker. It had a combination lock and the shelves held medicines, they must have been getting ready for afternoon rounds. More containers stood on the counter, apparently waiting to be packed away. Newly delivered, she guessed.

The name leapt out at her as though someone had zoomed in on it the way one did on the computer when the text was too tiny for eyes that grew weaker by the month. After the pain came, while she could still sit at the desk, she had spent ages on the medical sites. At first she researched treatments and prognosis, but increasingly she was drawn to pain control with its variety of drug cocktails to keep the claws at bay. That had been when she and the oncologist still discussed things on an almost equal footing, before she began meekly accepting his decisions as law.

She couldn't remember when she had relinquished control. The answer lay somewhere in the haze of endless, fearful aching, in the crumbling straws of hope, in a future swallowed up by the word ‘terminal'. These days her concentration was less and her memory poor, she mainly identified her own drugs by their colour. But she remembered this name and the string of warnings and provisos that had accompanied it.

She became aware of the silence, a tangible thing that stood beside her all but tapping her on the shoulder. Faint, distant hum of air con, sounds of voices, muted, distant. No footsteps, no one near. No eyes on her, on the nurses' station. Just her and the bottles of pills and the little cold-box which she guessed held ampoules. There had been so many needles in the past months; when the pain was unbearable she asked for the needle, she who had been terrified of injections. It happened more and more often now. She was staring at the pills. There were eleven bottles, she seemed to have counted them.

And then she was walking on down the corridor and there were ten.

She found the bathroom, went into a stall and sat on the toilet seat. A tap dripped in one of the basins. Her heart was racing. The bottle fitted her hand as though it belonged there, the label clear. She opened it - this took some effort as the circle of plastic around the edge of the lid was hard to pull and her nails were brittle since the chemo. She would have used her teeth but they ached all the time and she was afraid they would break. Then it was open and she was tipping pills carefully into her hand. Twenty. Yellow and green. 50 milligrams, it said on the bottle. That made a thousand milligrams, more than enough for... more than enough.

She sat a while staring at nothingness until the nausea subsided, then got up, flushing in case someone was outside. The little bottle fitted perfectly in her pocket, but she tucked it into her panty instead, just to be on the safe side.

The tall nurse from Atlantis was at the station this time. The medicine locker was closed, the pills no longer on the counter. She reached the ward, nodded to the woman nearest the door and returned to bed. The cottage pie had settled and seemed less watery. She tried a few mouthfuls and the pain hissed a warning against red meat and grease. She ignored it. She would eat the mince if she wanted, and if she suffered, so be it. Everything had its price.

And now when she could no longer pay the price, she could make it stop. A handful of the orange pills and six, maybe seven of the yellow and greens; that was all it would take. In her own time, when cottage pie belonged in the past, when she no longer ached to hear Tricia's voice, Tricia who couldn't afford to come home. Her dark adversary would not be the one to decide the day or the hour, because in orange, green and yellow she held the power to drive him back. Forever. Then there would be no more pain, only rest and the answers that lay beyond Google's scope, like where and how. And why.

Bio for Ann Kern

I've been writing in one form or another for most of my life. School taught me you didn't have to rely solely on books, you could create your own stories, and once I discovered that I didn't stop. In my teens my parents bought me a portable typewriter - yes, it was that long ago - and I would type away for hours, churning out soap opera-ish romances, bad science fiction, worse poetry... looking back, I'm quite jealous at how easily the ideas flowed.

Getting married, having two daughters, moving around, somehow meant that for a long time I stopped weaving stories for pleasure. I only started again after getting involved almost by accident with some online writing communities and learned there is always time for something if you really want to do it. I love playing with words, love finding new, more effective ways of combining them, even if my punctuation still leaves a lot to be desired. One day, of course, I'd love to write a novel. Or two. Just waiting for the right idea to creep up on me.
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