If The Game Is Fair

 

by Samantha Priestley

 


Paula had been kept awake for nights by its presence. A physical thing. So strange. Usually she was held up by wakefulness because of emotions, thoughts scuttling round in her head and a heavy sigh pressing down through her body. But now this. Now an actual physical, touchable worry to send sleep into the corners of the bedroom, shrinking away from what her body had done.

She knew exactly where it was. She’d circled her fingers around it so many times, even though touching it terrified her, she could put her hand to it without trying. There. Underneath. On the underside of her right breast. A lump. About the size of a cherry stone. She lay in her bed, on her back, and she lightly pressed her fingertips to the place she knew the lump had settled.

She’d been to her doctor. She’d lain down and the doctor had rummaged around her breasts, looking to the side as if not connecting her vision with the flesh made her sense of touch all the keener.

“They’re very lumpy, aren’t they?” the doctor asked. And Paula had looked at her, startled. She’d never considered it before. Were her breasts particularly lumpy? Was she riddled? Is that what the GP was trying to tell her in this jovial manner? They are very lumpy. Full of lumps. It’s a wonder you noticed this lump amongst all the others.

“Is that bad?” Paula asked.

“Quite the opposite.” The doctor answered. And then she stood back and motioned for Paula to get dressed.

“I’ll write a letter of referral now,” the doctor went on. “But if I was a betting woman, I’d say it’s a cyst.” Then she looked at Paula and added, “So don’t worry, and maybe you’ll get some sleep tonight.”
       

Paula snatched at the sleeves of sleep that night as it continually moved away from her through the dark. A shadow retreating. Like failing memories she kept trying to find again and again.

She couldn’t remember the last time she’d slept peacefully. She used to manage a solid sleep on the night that followed a bad one. But the bad ones seemed to roll over now and take hold of the next night too, stacking up until Paula struggled to think or function in the days between. She wondered if it had anything to do with age, because she’d heard that you need less sleep when you get older, and Paula was forty-one. But then she also remembered her mum telling her that in the year before her gran died the old woman slept more and more, as if she was running down, slowly grinding to a halt.
So Paula should be sleeping more, practising to die, not less. She supposed she should be glad that wasn’t the case. She supposed she should feel more alive. But the lump grumbled in her breast and Paula didn’t feel alive. She felt she was barely there at all.

Paula’s sleeplessness had started when she began seeing James. She’d been kept awake at first by the building fizz of excitement in her middle each night before she was due to see him. You couldn’t call it butterflies. It was more like a shaken coca cola bottle, threatening to explode if anyone dared to take the lid off. She’d lie awake with a smile on her face and she’d think about what she would wear, what she would say and the feel of his arm and his shoulder as she pressed herself into his body. After a while she found she was being kept awake by the text messages that buzzed between them till the early hours of the morning. He was busy with work a lot, but the texts that began to fire through to her phone at midnight and beyond kept Paula awake with happiness lying in the bed next to her. Sometimes she would fall asleep with the phone in the bed, sleeping beside her in place of a body, long after James had given in to sleep himself and the phone had fallen silent.


It was difficult to remember when she had last slept well, but Paula thought it was after he’d photographed her. That afternoon she’d spent with James, his camera held like love in his hands, by his face, ready to capture any moment he desired. And she had let herself be moved and positioned, not by his hands, but by his look and his words. She had lain on the bed for him while he turned to the window, then back to her.

“The lights a bit flat in here.” he’d said.

She moved her legs to his say-so. Arched her back. Even pouted when he told her to. And all the while he turned his camera around in his hands like a rubix cube, and she heard each click.

“One more,” he said, smiling and cocking his head away from the lens for a moment to look at her body in real time. “Because it’s too good not to.”

Then he came closer, kneeling on the bed beside her and still flashing the pictures off again and again, Paula laughing and turning away in mock embarrassment.

Afternoon slid into evening and they slept, the camera still in the bed somewhere.

She found it difficult to remember what that afternoon’s sleep had been like now. Except to say it was as if she’d been drugged by his eyes. It was like his kisses poured soporific nectar into her mouth and she drunk it until her body couldn’t take any more.


She undressed with the curtain between her and this bearded, be-spectacled man. He had told her to remove her upper clothing and then he seemed to turn his back. Like a gentleman. Though it was too late for that. Paula already knew there was no such thing as a gentleman. She returned from the pulled curtain and sat on the edge of the bed. It was the strangest set-up. The man came towards her, looked at her body and put his hands firmly around her breasts. He said things like ‘where is it?’ and ‘when did you first notice it?’ then he said. ‘It’s very mobile, isn’t it?’ and she felt obliged to nod, as if she’d considered how it moved beneath the safety of her skin, free like a cloud, active like a fish. She hadn’t. She’d only been aware of its presence and the fact that it existed and had grown unseen inside of her.

“We’ll get a mammogram.” the consultant said. “And take a biopsy.” Then he sat beside her on the hospital couch, her breasts still ridiculously exposed between the two of them. “We’ll get the results in a couple of weeks.” he went on. “And, if the game is fair, it will show nothing more than a cyst.”


Paula had fallen in love with James like she was oil on a board. Love had slid into her like a hypodermic needle. It stung the most when it was removed.

 

Her breasts were squashed between the plates of the mammogram, her right one resisting where the lump bulged and sent a heavy pain through her flesh. She winced.

“Does that hurt?” the nurse asked.

Paula nodded, but the nurse just walked away without saying anything. It was a conspiracy of withheld knowledge, Paula thought. They all knew really, had seen a million patients with a million lumps in a million breasts, and they knew. They just wouldn’t say until they could prove it.

She was passed onto another doctor with a handheld scanner and a needle filled with anaesthetic.


The late-night texts stopped. Paula was kept awake by their absence, turning over in the dark and staring at the phone she left switched on all night, just in case. Sleep scuttled about under the covers, deep down in the bottom of the bed. It refused to surface and let her breathe it in. She took to napping in the day, ten minutes mid-morning and another ten in the afternoon. Then she would ease herself into the wide bed at night and lay there and wait to be dragged under to nothingness.

The day James came around again sleep was hiding under Paula’s eyes and in the heaviness of her limbs. He told her she looked tired.

“I haven’t been sleeping.” she said.

Paula thought it would be obvious why, but James just nodded, looked to his feet and then shrugged.

“It was fun.” he said. “We had fun.”


The anaesthetic was pushed into her breast and she lay and watched while the doctor took a biopsy, punching a thin grabber into her flesh, down to the lump and pulling parts of it away, back up through her skin. The doctor dropped the lump fragments into a container and held it up to the light.

“See that?” she said. “There’s little capillaries in it.”

Paula stared at the misshaped bits of her lump. She could see the tiny little worm like blood vessels. She imagined how they had fed the lump, taking blood and oxygen and alcohol to help it grow and ease its way. The lump had been encouraged to grow, she thought, by her own body, by her own mis-placed care.


It was fun. Three words that dug their nails deep into her flesh and ripped away at her. The wrong three words. At the wrong time. He’d looked at her uneasily and she could see the whole thing, but her body wouldn’t accept it.

Then he’d gone. And sleep seemed to move further and further away from Paula every night. She chased it from one side of the bed to the other. She tried to lure it into her body in the quiet, empty afternoons. But it kept its distance. She wondered if it had something to do with the lump. If her blood and veins and tissue had gone looking in all the wrong places and found, instead of sleep, something new to turn their attention to. She wondered if the nature of who she was had fed this thing growing under her skin, or if it had fed her.

Then the lump went away too. Paula’s fingers scrambled about in the underside of her right breast, but as quickly as it had turned up, it had disappeared. She felt frantically for it asshe lay in bed every night, but she could no longer feel its weight and its hard reality inside of her.

She went back to the hospital and sat there forlornly as the doctor smiled and told her the results were good.

“So, the results showed that it was part glandular, part cyst.” he said.

Paula knew better than to ask what that meant. “It’s gone.” she replied. “I can’t find it anymore.”

The doctor smiled. “Well, that’s good then.” he said. “In that case, we don’t need to see you again.”


Paula went home and got into her bed. She stayed deep beneath the duvet, only her face exposed to claim breath. She felt her limbs as heavy as wet sand, her bones weighing her flesh down like bricks in a coffin. She was lucky. She could see it in the face of the doctor. Not everyone receives such good news. The thing that had been such a potential danger to her, that had threatened to turn her life on its head, that would consume her and take over her being until she didn’t know who she was anymore, had gone. She could sleep easy now. She lay with the covers pulled around her neck and she felt sleep begin to drown her.

 

 

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Samantha Priestley is a UK based writer of fiction and articles on various subjects. Her first novel, Despite Losing it on Finkle Street, is published by Fygleaves publishing, and her short stories and articles have been published in anthologies and magazines around the world. She won first prize in The H E Bates competition and The Tacchi-Morris Arts Centre Prize. Samantha’s first single story chapbook will be published by Folded Word this year.