The Topic Of Cancer.
The suggested soundtrack to accompany this short story is ‘The House Of Healing’ from my Bam Boo album, which you can also download online.
It’s best to keep your eyes shut, thought Roger, as he lay on his back in his underpants and clenched his fists tightly. The lights were hot, bright and in-his-face. He was trying not to imagine the horrible things that were about to be done to him, so thought of pleasant diversions instead, like the sound of the waves lapping outside the window of the cottage in Cornwall that he and his family owned. There were seagulls wheeling and squawking above, as the fog horn of a distant ferry sounded across the bay. The white curtains billowed in the sea breeze on a beautiful, late summer morning. He could smell the sea through the open window as he lay in bed cuddling Charlie, who smelled pretty good too.
‘Just a little prick,’ intoned a soft, female voice, interrupting his reverie. He didn’t bother to stifle a snort in response to such an obviously unintentional innuendo, but maybe she had realised as she allowed herself a mild chuckle, then gently coughed, as she was perhaps being a tad unprofessional. ‘Just one more.’ She said softly. He drew a sharp breath as the second one went-in sharply. ‘Ouch!’ He said through gritted teeth, then allowed a teasing smile to play around his lips as he briefly opened his eyes and wondered if she was surreptitiously checking-out his athletic, six-foot-plus physique, surfer-boy, sandy-coloured-sun-streaked, floppy hair and hippie-chic, goatee beard. The jury was out, but made their decision within minutes. Guilty (of being hot).
‘There, that’s the worst over, no more injections, so you can relax now.’ Said Dr Aziz in her pleasingly soothing tones, as the local anaesthetic started to take effect in the areas of the two, small lumps on his chest. He tried not to picture the scalpel cutting into his skin, or the blood spurting out and thought instead about what might happen the next evening, which was New Year’s Eve. He was going to spend it quietly at the cottage in Cornwall with Charlie, his long-term lover. They were planning to drink champagne at midnight, take a small amount of Class-A drugs and make love all night to the sound of the waves beneath the window, then just chill for a few days.
Everything was under control at the club. His management team had been hand-picked, he trusted them to make the biggest night of the year go smoothly. He composed a little rhyme in his head: ‘Let’s open new doors in double-O four,’ as Dr Aziz carried-out the biopsies on his mysterious lumps. Then he came-up with an alternative: ‘In two thousand and four, you won’t be a whore anymore!’ There was no way he was going to open his eyes any more, as he was squeamish about needles and even more so about surgical instruments. ‘Yeuch!’ He shuddered inwardly.
‘This won’t take long, Mr Sidebottom,’ said Dr Aziz, as she stitched-up the wounds. Mr Sidebottom? How formal, thought Roger… and what a ridiculous surname to get saddled-with at birth! Professionally and artistically, however, it was a different matter. He was more commonly known as Roger Senseless: seventies punk legend and lead singer of Senseless, his eponymous band, successful, ground-breaking club promoter in the eighties, tabloid gossip columnist in the nineties, and now the proud owner of Senseless, a hugely successful bar, restaurant and club – the latter was members-only – in what had once been the most neglected, north-western corner of West London’s outrageously expensive and trendy-yet-gritty Notting Hill.
The Senseless brand had certainly matured nicely. Aged forty eight, he lived alone above ‘the shop’ (which he’d converted from a former factory in a Victorian warehouse) in a fantastic, loft-style apartment overlooking the rooftop pool and the canal below. He loved to watch the boats go by. He owned a converted, seventy-foot barge called The Jolly Roger moored alongside the restaurant’s mediterranean-style terrace. After all those years of dreaming about design fantasies when he was struggling and poor, he’d created a monster… of cool. ‘The interiors of boats are always so dull and traditional, like floating caravans,’ he’d said in an interview in the cutting-edge, style magazine The Head, ‘I wanted to break the mould and create something really stylish, yet a bit-tongue-in-chic.’
He’d designed the sleek, modernist, minimalist- yet consciously ‘retro’ – interior himself. It was a symphony of wenge wood and stainless steel with more than a hint of James Bond – very Alfresco* Magazine. It also acted as the ultimate – i.e. cocaine-user-friendly-super-VIP space at the Senseless complex (not so much a complex, more a lifestyle; although running it was quite a complex operation). One of Roger’s favourite things was to go chugging-off down the canal in the Jolly Roger with a bunch of friends and family, or with Charlie, just to literally float and to enjoy fabulous, late brunches and midnight indulgences. He loved cooking, it was therapeutic and fulfilling, although he never referred to any of the trendy cookery books written by some of his club members, as he liked to invent his own dishes.
The barge had two double cabins (which served as guest bedrooms) and a large saloon fitted out with ivory-coloured, suede banquettes. It wasn’t a traditional narrow-boat (‘nasty floating corridors with bunks’, as Roger called them), but a ‘floatel’, a former floating hotel, which was twice as wide as a narrow-boat. So it was more like a luxury apartment which was mobile, with a sun deck on top. Lush. Senseless – which he’d conceived and designed – covered about eight-thousand square feet over three floors. It was situated on a narrow street of warehouses, most of which had now been converted into live-work apartments, restaurants, bars, galleries, shops and, of course, estate agencies, on the back of the success of his venue.
Naturally, he’d made sure that he’d set-up a property company in order to benefit from the ongoing development financially. The area had become known as NoKen (north of Notting Hill, south of Kensal Rise), which Roger had dreamt-up and ‘leaked’ to local estate agents, so they could claim it as their own. It had become a very fashionable and trendily-bohemian area in which to live. The ground floor of Senseless was a bar and restaurant, where the decor was simple, yet stylish. The walls were sand-blasted brick and featured some cool and quirky artwork (some by Roger), mostly by local artists. There were large refectory-style wooden tables and long benches; seventies, three-piece suites in brown and cream leather; low tables made from railway sleepers and a huge bar made from giant bricks created from recycled, crushed, plastic mineral-water bottles.
The centrepiece of the double-height room was a massive, fifteen-foot-diameter chandelier, created from the same bottles. Roger, always canny about creating zeitgeist terms, had come-up with ‘Recyclo-chic’ to describe his new, eco-friendly, stylistic innovation. The Head magazine had adopted his buzzword and had based a whole issue around it in the summer of 2003. Eighteen-foot-high glass doors led on to the softly-lit, jasmine-scented terrace overlooking the canal, which had under-floor heating and lighting and a twenty-foot high waterfall cascading down a back-lit copper wall (complete with verdigris) at one end. It was furnished with stylish, aluminium tables and chairs designed by the famous architect Keith Jacket (a former lover of Roger’s in the seventies), and was dotted with pieces of sixties abstract sculpture.The planting was mediterranean in flavour – evocative of Ibiza.
On the first floor there was a dance area with raised balconies and floor-to-ceiling, burgundy, velvet-covered booths – the look was seventies-disco-strip-club. A larger-than-life wardrobe door (The Lion, The Witch and…) led into the performance space-cum-theatre-and-cinema, which seated up to one hundred people on tiered, cushioned seating covered in fake-cowhide upholstery. It was also used for private viewings, showcases by new bands, product launches, cable TV shows and, of course, the annual Senseless Panto, featuring various members (many of whom were famous actors), sending themselves-up rotten – all for charidee, of course. The next one was premiering soon: It was Snow Black And The Seven Vertically-challenged, Trendy, White Liberals, featuring Roger as The Wicked Witch of The Westway and the British soul-diva Emily Bright as Snow Black, with fashion designers, pop musicians and actors from various soaps playing the dwarves. The famous actors had insisted on taking the other, major leading roles, of course. And the ‘dwarves’ had to act on their knees.
The second floor housed the private members’ club STH (Stairway To Heaven), which was themed after the classic Powell And Pressburger film A Matter Of Life and Death (it had been entitled Stairway To Heaven in the USA and was probably/possibly the inspiration for the classic track by Led Zeppelin). Unsurprisingly, the decor was all-white and featured a ten foot-diameter, circular viewing gallery (just like in the film) so that the private members, who were known as ‘Angels’, could survey the mere mortals below them on the dancefloor.
Two thirds of the third floor was taken-up by a huge, modernist conservatory with a retractable, glass roof, then outside there was a turquoise-tiled swimming pool and jacuzzi, surrounded by deliberately ironic, Jackie Collins-esque sun loungers and tropical plants. There was a retro-futuristic, forties-style bar (think Fred And Ginger), and changing rooms. Above this, on the fourth and fifth floor, was Roger’s duplex apartment, which was relatively modest (although uber-chic), mostly open-plan and filled with modern design (largely Italian) and coolly-kitsch classics, and the odd, older antique, along with state-of-the-art, hi-tech features.
All Roger’s creative dreams had become reality through sheer hard work, networking and self-belief. It had always been a struggle, but he’d finally pulled it off – the Senseless complex had opened in 1999 – and they had certainly partied like it was 1999 at the opening bash. Now a potential threat hovered over him like, well, Dr Aziz, although he doubted if she was a threat. In fact, she could possibly be his saviour in helping him find out what his own medical sword of Damocles might be.
‘I wonder if the Appleton sisters gave birth here… you know, All Saints.’ Roger wondered aloud. He felt the thread being used in the stitches (yeuch!) on his chest. Dr Aziz giggled, patted his leg gently and replied: ‘I think they both went private, but it would have been rather appropriate, I guess. There you go, all done.’ There was a soft, swishing noise as the operating table was lowered pneumatically, ‘that’s so you can get off easily.’ Said Dr Aziz. ‘How would I not get-off easily?’ He joked as he opened his eyes and sat-up, noticing that she looked slightly embarrassed as she busied herself with labelling the plastic bottles containing his bloody tissues.
It was Dr Mikado, his Anglo-Japanese, general practitioner, who’d fast-tracked him into being seen by the Dermatology Department at All Saints hospital that day. This was something of a surprise, as she had always appeared to have a bit of a problem with him. Roger had had a mystery illness for over ten years. The symptoms were vaguely similar to M.E (also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and believed by many medical professionals to actually be ‘all in the mind’), but M.E didn’t give you constant diarrhoea, nor an incessant, inner back pain (‘It’s NOT muscular.’ He’d tried explaining to her, when she’d insisted on sending him for an X-ray of his spine). Plus, he’d developed an irritating, itchy-sore rash on his back and head at the same time as the other symptoms all those years ago, which none of the doctors had seemed to relate directly to ‘the gut problem’, whatever that might be.
He’d been shunted from specialist (pillar) to specialist (post) over the years, with none of them reaching any conclusions at all, apart from the gastroenterology consultant at All Saints who’d suggested that the Spirochaetes that had been detected in his large intestine after a colonoscopy had been a deeply meaningless ‘red herring’. It had been fun watching his polyps being removed on a monitor, thanks to a valium drip in his wrist, although it later transpired that the polyps were pre-cancerous, which was a relief. Just as well he’d had the colonoscopy then. Recently, he’d decided to take matters into his own hands and had researched his illness online, based on the symptoms. ‘Thank God for Boogie, the best search engine on the net.’ He said to Quentin, his best friend, who happened to be the ultimate tech-head.
He reached the conclusion that he was suffering from Male Candida Of The Gut, for which there was apparently no specific treatment. When he’d informed Dr Mikado of his discovery, she’d snorted derisively and stated: ‘Men don’t get Candida!’ Yeah, right, you stupid cow, he’d thought, as her own allergy – to studying, or knowledge – manifested itself. She’d always been sceptical about his illness – especially when he’d needed monthly medical certificates from her in order for his insurance company to pay-off a bank loan when he’d temporarily been receiving sickness benefits eight years before. Her responses had suggested, perhaps, that she thought that he was a hypochondriac, a malingerer, or even a fraud, which really pissed him-off. He couldn’t help wondering if she was actually a homophobe, or just a bitter, thirty-something woman who found him attractive (he was a handsome fellow) and knew – not unreasonably, as he’d been totally honest about his sexuality – that she didn’t stand a chance. Well, he thought, he wouldn’t have fancied her anyway, even if he had been straight. Who let the dogs out? Woof, woof!
Dr Aziz was a different matter, however, as she was a rather beautiful and evidently cool woman of maybe… twenty six? Was she Anglo-Pakistani, or, perhaps, Iranian? He sensed that she was subtlety flirting with him. He didn’t mind that at all, as it was rather flattering. Plus, her bedside manner was easy-going, she made him feel at ease. She also seemed concerned about his mysterious condition, after he’d explained the symptoms to her. But she didn’t actually confirm his suspicions about what he thought it was. So she wasn’t that hot.
Two weeks previously, Dr Mikado had tried to dismiss him from her consulting room, having impatiently printed-out his usual prescription of useless medications. She was motioning for him to leave with a dismissive wave when he surprised her by stating firmly: ‘You know those little lumps I’ve had on my chest for years?’ She nodded reluctantly, whilst poring over her computer (horribly-outdated, thought Roger, it had green text on it! Was it an Amstrad?) ‘Well, one of them has started bleeding for no apparent reason in the last week, could you have a quick look before I go (terribly sorry to ask)?’ It was his sort-of boyfriend Charlie who’d suggested that he’d demanded some kind of response from his GP. ‘Put your foot down!’ He’d insisted, ‘how the hell are you going to find out what’s wrong if you don’t make a fuss?’ He didn’t generally expect Roger to act on his advice, but Roger actually respected his opinion. Charlie didn’t realise – whilst trying so hard to be ‘normal’ – that he was more than just intuitive, he was a natural psychic. But like many people ‘who knew’, he was scared of the unknown, put-off by the potential dark forces. Plus, he was an accountant.
Dr Mikado sighed, then motioned for Roger to lift-up his top. ‘See…?’ He asked, as she reluctantly examined the scabby little red lump in question. Then, much to his surprise, she stated: ‘I think you’ll need to have that looked at by the dermatology department at All Saints. It could possibly be a cause for concern.’ Eureka! He’d had other possibly suspicious lumps removed at another hospital a couple of years before, after he’d been seen by the far-more sympathetic Dr Ogboke when Dr Mikado had been on maternity leave (whose child was it anyway – a sperm donor’s?). One lump had been on his side and the other on his lower lip. The lip had been the worst: after it had been removed the stitches felt like barbed-wire in his mouth for ten days, or more, it was torture, but they’d found nothing malignant in the tissue that had been removed. Relief.
The GPs at the group practice still left it to the seemingly random specialists to deal with his mystery illness. It was true that they were horribly overworked, but they showed no interest in his condition and waved their hands dismissively when he’d almost apologetically ask about it: ‘Oh, it’s all in the hands of the specialists.’ He got the feeling that he was going nowhere ‘in the system’. He was stuck up a creek without a paddle. Just because Dr Mikado fancied him/hated him? That seemed extraordinarily unfair. He could have gone private, but it was against his principles. He paid tax to supposedly support the NHS, after all. Roger got off the operating table and Dr Aziz motioned for him to sit opposite her at her desk. ‘Keep the plasters on, or replace them,’ she said in her seductive voice, ‘until the stitches are removed. Make an appointment with your GP to have that done in ten days. Then we need to see you as soon as the results of your biopsies are in. Trouble is, everyone’s gone home today so you’ll have to call-in for your appointment, it should be in about fifteen days, but I suspect it might be longer, because of the time of year. Sorry about that.’ ‘No worries.’ Said Roger.
She wrote-out her telephone and bleeper numbers, which surprised him after years of being dismissed as a hypochondriac, or whatever, by his GPs. Shit! Did this mean he was, well, you know… in danger? Or was she just a nice doc’? ‘So what are you doing for new year’s eve?’ She asked, handing him her written details. ‘Escaping to Cornwall!’ He said brightly, ‘we’re off tomorrow afternoon. I co-own a cottage on the beach, and I’m going with my other-half. How about you?’ He put back-on his T-shirt, which he’d designed, then his hooded sweat-shirt and the tan, D&G leather jacket that Charlie had given him. ‘That sounds fantastic,’ she replied, ‘well, a girlfriend – a colleague actually – of mine knows the owner of this trendy restaurant and club called Senseless in North Ken’ and she’s managed to get us tickets to the New Year’s Eve bash, even though they were sold out!’
Hah! If only she knew, he thought, but decided to reveal nothing, as it was more fun. ‘Wow, lucky you, hope you have a great night.’ But who was this colleague? He didn’t know any female doctors as far as he was aware. He left the hideous, institutional-looking outpatient’s building (drab, sixties, prefab architecture – it could have been in East Berlin prior to the fall of the wall) and lit a Camel Light in the dark as the December rain drizzled down between the older, Victorian sections of the hospital – that must be a chapel up there, he observed, noting some murky, full-length, stained-glass windows – then checked his mobile for text messages. Nothing from Charlie. Well, he was at work, but Roger knew that his vaguely-committed lover suspected that he might be a bit of a hypochondriac too, and lazy, he’d once said. Big mistake. Red-rag to a bull. Laid-back he could have accepted, but not lazy. There were a few text messages from concerned friends and family.
A handsome, young black man in a white coat was having a cigarette close by and looked at him meaningfully, a doctor he supposed He decided that he had enough on his plate, ignored him and went for a very late lunch in a patisserie on the other side of the aptly-named Plague street. Roger had always worked his arse-off, mostly at night, but he didn’t make a big deal about it. He wasn’t in any way religious, so the protestant (or indeed catholic, jewish, hindu, buddhist, pagan or muslim) work ethic wasn’t something which he cared, or felt guilty, about. He’d always been a ‘night person’ and was constantly exasperated by ‘day people’ who expected him to speak to them at nine in the morning, when he’d often been working until three hours before. Thoughtless twats! Smug, strangely-moralistic bastards who were trying to make him feel guilty. Guilty about what? Years of struggle, innovation, passion, creativity and, at last, some fantastic results, as-in success? There was nothing to be guilty about. Plus he was avowedly honest. How else could you live your life? He’d spent nearly five years trying to help Charlie get through his psychological problems (whilst having endless, beautiful, spiritual and magical love-making nights), but Charlie didn’t see the big picture, nor did he understand the creative process – or pretended not to. Was it because he worked in an office and felt poorly qualified to comment on this ‘glamourous, creative world’ which he wrongly assumed was utterly false.
Charlie moonlighted for Roger, doing his accounts for him a couple of evenings a month. ‘Listen Charlie,’ said Roger as he cooked dinner while Charlie typed data into spreadsheets on his laptop, ‘don’t you understand that I’m helping genuinely talented, creative people to network with the people with the money and the contacts to help them achieve their goals?’ Charlie said that he refused to believe that there could actually be genuine altruism in such a phoney world. ‘How the fuck do you think the artistic salons in Paris in the Impressionist period achieved such fantastic results for instance?’ Asked Roger (actually, thinking about it, The Impressionists were derided in their time. Whatever). Charlie didn’t know what Impressionism was. Roger brought out some coffee-table books to back it up – Matisse, Degas, Seurat- ‘Oh, all those blurry blobs!’ Anyone could have done that.’ Said Charlie dismissively as he took off his clothes – God! His body looked good, thought Roger – as Charlie walked-out of his spacious, post-modernist-retro, open-plan, kitchen-diner for no apparent reason and disappeared upstairs. ‘Niiice butt!’ Shouted Roger, wondering why Charlie felt it necessary to suddenly wander-off and mutter abstract nonsense to himself. Was he seeking attention, or needing therapy? Hmm, maybe it was sexual therapy – like a good shag – that he was after. You never knew. His big attraction was his mystique, he supposed, but Roger loved him more than he’d ever loved anyone else.
Charlie was built like a rugby player, albeit a relatively short one, and was blessed with silky, mahogany-coloured skin, perfect white teeth, a fantastic smile, soft, pink lips, an arse like a brown, velvet football and, yes, in Charlie’s case, it was indeed ‘true what they said’. What did ‘they’ know? He’d come across (come across ha ha!) plenty of black people with small dicks, as it happened. Charlie was a thirty year-old black Brazilian – well, his father was – and his mother was Trinidadian, but he was second-generation British. He’d been brought-up on a fairly rough council estate in Tottenham, in North London, but had done very well at school and subsequently, university, despite the fact that an older, male cousin had abused him sexually as an eight year-old. Roger had tried to get him to talk about it, but Charlie was not buying-in to the fact that it had blighted his life. He was essentially brushing it under the carpet.
‘Psychotherapy is what you need to rediscover the real joy and romance in your life, then you might realise that I’m quite a joyful, romantic person for you too, not a fucking threat!’ Roger had suggested. Charlie’s degree in accounting had enabled him to him forge a career that had led to his dull, but quite well-paid job at the All Nations Bank. He also did Roger’s accounts, of course. Roger’s best friend Quentin liked to wind him up by suggesting that Charlie looked like the star of the bank’s TV Ads, which was unfair, as Charlie was a handsome, masculine and intelligent man who simply didn’t ‘get’ arty-farty stuff. Why should he? He was an accountant. That didn’t mean he was dull, or lacking in intuitive depth. ‘I wish he’d go back on the ADs’, thought Roger, as he checked his emails; ‘he’s a much nicer person on Prozac’.
It was eight days since Dr Aziz had performed the biopsies. Roger had returned from a refreshing and romantic time in Cornwall with Charlie. It had been wonderful to take long, bracing walks then relax in front of a real fire with storms raging outside – and make love all week. But he was feeling unwell. The phone was ringing. He let it go to voice-mail, then looked-up and saw 9:AM (Quentin had given him a clock for Christmas which projected the time onto his bedroom ceiling). He heard his mobile phone ring too, but it was too early in his morning and he wasn’t speaking to anyone, so he went back to sleep. When he reluctantly hauled himself out of bed at noon, he noticed there was a voice-message on the mobile. He made some tea then checked it. ‘Hello Mr Sidebottom, this is Dr Amelia Aziz from All Saints,’ the message went, ‘and we’d like you to come in as soon as…’ Then it cut-out.
What the fuck was that all about? Was there something wrong with his lumps… and with his mobile? Were they calling him in earlier than the appointment that he’d eventually managed to make for the twenty-first, after myriad calls that had inevitably led him back to the switchboard and some dreadful ‘Early Music’ while they’d kept him on hold? It later discovered that it was only Dr Aziz’s coded reference (‘XTC, override all bookings’) that she’d written down for him that had achieved the desired result He’d also noticed some weird, error messages on his mobile over the last few days that had made no logical sense. So he took the phone to his local telecommunications shop.
‘It’s fucked mate.’ Said Mohammed, the boss’s eighteen year old son, having run some tests on it (‘He’s barely legal,’ Quentin had noted a few days previously, after buying a top-of-the-range PDA, ‘but cute’). ‘It’s about four years old, that’s like a lifetime these days, but could you transfer all my numbers from my Sim card if I bought a new one?’ Asked Roger. ‘No problemo.’ Answered Mohammed, with a dazzling smile. Roger bought a new polyphonic phone. But he he couldn’t check his messages until he’d charged it up for twelve hours. Then he remembered that he had Dr Aziz’s bleeper number. After many attempts, he eventually got through to her, on his landline. ‘Hello Mr Sidebottom,’ she said in her velvety voice, ‘how good of you to get back to me, happy new year…erm, we just wanted you to come in ahead of the appointment you made.’ ‘Uh oh,’ responded Roger, ‘does that mean I’ve got something to be concerned about?’ ‘Well, I’m really sorry, I can’t discuss that right now as I’m with a patient,’ she replied, ‘but could you come in to see me tomorrow at around four-thirty, as we’d like to run some more tests?’
Hmm. So there was something going on. ‘Sure,’ he replied, ‘see you then’. Happy new year indeed! Now he was apprehensive, but also determined to be philosophical. So what if fate had decided that he was to be a cancer victim when he’d finally succeeded in all his aspirations? That would be a cruel twist, but if it was the case, what could he do? Most cancers were treatable these days, weren’t they, if they’d been discovered early enough? But hang-on, he’d had those lumps… well, the first one was about five years ago, the other was about three, and the new one on his neck was about one year old, right? What about the one on his tongue which had been there since the end of the eighties? That was hardly ‘catching it early’, was it?
He called Charlie and explained what was going on. He was genuinely concerned and sympathetic, for a change. Then he spoke to Quentin, who was a bit of a medical buff, in fact, he was a qualified nurse, so he offered to come along to Roger’s meeting with Dr Aziz and asked if he could stay the night in Roger’s flat above Senseless, as he lived in in an Art-Deco ‘semi’ in the trendy-cool city of Brighton, on the south coast. ‘You know you don’t have to ask.’ Said Roger. Quentin was thirty-five and was also known as Biggy – the black one in the duo Biggy and Skunkhead – who’d had a huge R&B hit in the UK a few years back with ‘Coffee-coloured Baby’. ‘Let’s leave early so we can grab some Bugger King before the appointment!’ Said Quentin cheerily the next afternoon, pulling-on the baggy, pale-blue D-Squared trousers he’d bought in New York. Roger pulled a face. ‘Yeah, health-food, just what I need… hey, everyone likes a bit of trash sometimes, don’t they? Quentin, you’re crisp!’
A little later, they were eating their burgers and reflecting on the sad, over-lit ambience of the half-empty (or was it half-full?) ‘restaurant’, which seemed to be the exclusive domain of a bevy of lost, black souls. ‘How come no-one ever coined the term black-trash, or even Asian-trash?’ Whispered Quentin, ‘everyone knows what white — and trailer-trash — is, especially if they’ve watched the Larry Ginger show – did you know it’s an opera now? Or is it a PC issue?’ ‘Of course I know, it’s a hit,’ said Roger, ‘it’s Larry Ginger, The Opera – I thought it was a musical – and I’ll never forget when Larry presented you both with your Boom Award at the Albert Hall. Do you remember how pissed-off Underground Mixx looked when they lost-out to you in the Best Dance Record category? As for black-trash, I guess it’s a PC thing. There’s always gonna be some kind of under-class, but everything claws its way out of the pit in time. There’s an evolved, educated black middle-class in this country, in America and all over the world, but the stereotypical portrayal of American blacks, sorry Affericans – I just invented that! – in movies as pimps, crack-heads and gangsters is not so different from the stereotypical portrayal of gays as tragic, effeminate queens. And both ghettos, sorry, communities, sometimes actively support and encourage that old-school bullshit sometimes. It’s time to evolve!’
They had to wait for forty minutes in the depressing waiting room at the clinic. Soon, they were the only people left. Dr Aziz eventually appeared, apologised, touching Roger’s arm, smiled at Quentin and beckoned them into her consulting room. Roger was wearing fresh, clean clothes. He never went a day without a bath or shower and never wore clothes next to his skin for more than once a day anyway. The brand-new, self-designed T-shirt he was wearing had a sort-of arty, contact-sheet of digital pictures that he’d taken printed on the front, mostly of Thailand and Cornwall. The trousers were his favourite, comfortable, chunky-cord, beige combats with classic, white Calvin Kleins briefs underneath. He never wore any other underpants. Quentin had recently bought him back a dozen pairs from New York, where they were much cheaper. Roger introduced Quentin to Dr Aziz. ‘He’s a qualified nurse.’ Said Roger brightly, knowing this wouldn’t do him any harm. They sat in front of her as she opened Roger’s bulging file on her desk.
‘Okay…’ she cleared her throat and shuffled the papers in front of her, ‘the results of your biopsies are in. I’m sorry I couldn’t speak to you about this on the phone, but it transpires that you have an extremely rare condition in both the lumps on your chest, which is known as Granular Cell Tumour.’
‘So what’s the chance of them being malignant?’ Asked Quentin, thinking: what the hell is that? Never heard of it. ‘The likelihood of it being malignant is remote,’ replied Dr Aziz, then turned to Roger, ‘but Mr Sidebottom, would you mind if our head of department,’ she lowered her voice to a stage whisper, ‘Dr Garfunkel… had a look at them?’ ‘Sure, no probs.’ Replied Roger. He knew something was up, so he had to deal with it. But why the ‘boss scenario’? And how did it relate to his mystery illness, if at all?
‘By the way,’ he asked Dr Aziz, ‘how was your new year’s eve at Senseless?’ ‘Oh it was wicked, what a fabulous place, I had a brilliant night,’ she replied, smiling, ‘but I never found out who sent a bottle of Krug to our table!’ ‘That’s very intriguing.’ Said Roger, winking surreptitiously at Quentin, who was ‘in’ on the story. ‘Here’s Dr Garfunkel.’ Said Dr Aziz. There could have been a drum roll. ‘Ah ha, Mr Sidebottom, pleased to meet you!’ Boomed the head of the department, shaking Roger’s hand enthusiastically. He was straight out of central-casting; late-sixties, with half-moon glasses and wild, grey, mad-professor hair. ‘I’ll come back in a minute, if you could just disrobe’. ‘Do you mind?’ Asked Dr Aziz, motioning towards the examination bed. She pulled the curtain across (‘Nurse! The screens!) and he took off his clothes. ‘This is all a bit of a carry-on!’ He joked to Dr Aziz, who chuckled, then whispered: ‘Can I mention…’ She motioned to where Quentin was sitting, giggling occasionally, reading something that what evidently amusing on his laptop. ‘You know… the test?’ ‘Oh!’ Said Roger deliberately loudly, ‘he knows all about the fact that I’m HIV negative, no probs – don’t you Quent?’ ‘Yep!’ Said Quentin brightly. ‘What’s the story you’re reading?’ Asked Roger, sitting on the examination table in just his ‘Calvins’. ‘Oh, it’s really good, it’s from a multimedia book called ‘My Unplanned Obsolescence’ and it’s by someone called Thom Topham; I found it online.
Dr Garfunkel returned and examined Roger’s lumps, whilst asking him various questions. ‘Mr Sidebottom is HIV negative.’ Volunteered Dr Aziz. ‘Excellent!’ Said Dr Garfunkel, as Quentin giggled beyond the screens. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Roger, ‘he’s just reading a funny story’. Dr Garfunkel left, Roger got dressed and returned to Dr Aziz’s desk. ‘Sorry about that,’ she said soothingly, ‘but do you know, Dr Garfunkel has never, ever seen a case of these tumours in his forty years of practicing!’ ‘Well, er, glad to be of service.’ Said Roger, pulling a ‘gee thanks!’ face. Dr Aziz continued: ‘I wonder if you could do me – and the department – a big favour?’ Roger shrugged and looked at her enquiringly. ‘Would you object to being examined by the department of dermatology at Saint Thomas’s in Lambeth next week?’ She asked. ‘No, not at all, if it helps sort things out regarding my mystery illness, then that’s all good.’ He answered. ‘Thank you,’ she said, ‘I’d also like you not to tell any of them what the condition is, if that’s okay.’ Roger tapped his nose in a conspiratorial fashion, then said ‘ Sure, but I’d like to ask you something: if these tumours are so rare, where have they previously been found?’ She looked slightly uncomfortable and said ‘Well, uh…’ He shot her an encouraging, I-can-handle-it look. ‘It’s generally only found in African-american women’. Quentin and Roger had to suppress their laughter.
‘Get yer weave-on… right-on girl !’ Squealed Quentin double-ironically when they were outside again, lighting-up cigarettes and still laughing. ‘Oh yeah!’ said Roger in a deliberately bad, West-Indian accent, ‘I want those big, twisty, multi-coloured plaits in big beehives on my head, sister dread!’ ‘You know, I get the feeling,’ said Quentin, in something approximating an Indian accent, ‘that the lovely Dr Aziz is… just a little bit ambitious!’ Roger raised his eyebrows: ‘Yeah, she’s hoping for the front cover of SKIN, The British Journal Of Dermatology. Next thing you know they’ll be wanting to take pictures of my lumps at the hospital using a dodgy back-drop of some hospital gown held-up with masking tape!’ How very prescient he was. His lumps were to become celebrity lumps, as they were indeed featured on the cover of SKIN, before they were removed.
The following week, Roger showed-up at the allotted time at St Stephen’s. He’d been asked to report to the nurses’ station in the dermatology department on the first floor of the South Building, wherever that was. This was London’s leading, teaching hospital and it was a sprawling complex of Victorian buildings with various architecturally dubious additions from the twentieth century bolted-on. He got lost several times in endless corridors, and was surprised to suddenly come across an old man playing Debussy on a grand piano – rather well – in a vast, lofty, Victorian lobby featuring marble pillars and ornate ironwork. as he searched for the dermatology department. He eventually found the right stairs and announced his presence at the nurses’ station. He was asked to follow one of them, who had obviously been expecting him: ‘Just wait there for a little while, if you don’t mind,’ she said as she ushered him in to a clinical, bare, pale-green room, ‘you’re about to be inundated, welcome to the Gulag!’ Dark humour seemed endemic in hospitals, he thought, as he sat down and started to work out the Codeword in The Daily Mirror – it was looking like number ten was the ‘E’ – then the door swung open and a gaggle of doctors of all ages, sexes and colours crowded into the room and started firing questions at him.
They asked him to remove most of his clothes, then ushered him on to the examination bed and turned on a bright light above his head. They wanted to know every detail. ‘This one is about five years old…’ said Roger, pointing his finger at a lump, ‘and this one about three. I’m HIV negative and also have a mystery ailment which I suspect is Male Candida Of The Gut. I’d like to find out if there’s a link between the two conditions. He felt like saying ‘anyone fancy a shag?’ But decided against it. The first group of doctors left, to be replaced by another ten or so. Roger started to feel like he sounded like a stuck-record (‘this lump five years, this one three’), but that didn’t stop him cracking jokes – ‘If it IS a yeast infection, hopefully I’m a funghi to be with!’ – and making cheap innuendoes. There was, however, no Hattie Jacques look-alike, which was a shame, he found it quite fun to be the official centre of attention. Eventually, the third posse of docs were leaving, apart from one, a pretty, young-ish blond woman, dressed in what looked like a Chanel suit. She introduced herself as Dr Rachel Rashing (talk about ‘born to the job’, thought Roger), Dr Aziz’s colleague. Roger winked at her and whispered ‘I haven’t given the game away!’ She whispered back ‘Thank you, you’ve been a complete star, this lot won’t forget you in a hurry! Dr Aziz sends her apologies, she was called to The Palace to do some private work.’ ‘I always suspected that Princess Anne had a nasty case of eczema – probably due to the horses,’ quipped Roger, putting his clothes back on, then asked her, ‘please could you try and pull all the info together regarding my mystery illness, which I think might be Male Candida Of The Gut, and see if there’s any link with these superstar, ultra-rare tumours?’ She nodded emphatically. Roger continued: ‘I don’t want to be used for any self-aggrandising, ambitous purposes, I need to get to the bottom, so to speak, of this bloody long-term, health nightmare. Can you imagine having the runs five times a day for ten years? Now… how the hell do I get out of this maze?’ They walked out of the ‘Gulag cell’. She pointed him in the right direction, then suddenly said: ‘You’re Roger Senseless, aren’t you? I recognise you from that interview you did with The Head magazine.’ ‘Certainly not,’ he replied in a cod-punky, mockney voice, ‘I’m just a looky-likey.’ ‘Pants on fire!’ She responded swiftly, grinned, then added: ‘listen, can you do me another favour, I know you’ve been totally brilliant, but I sort-of lied to my immediate boss Amelia, I mean Dr Aziz, when I pretended that I knew you, in order to get the new year’s eve tickets at your wonderful club.’ They walked through the grand Victorian lobby as the same old man played Chopin Etudes on the grand piano. He eyed them quizzically. ‘The truth is, I only know your accountant Charlie – he’s a Cancer, just like me, as it happens – and he swung it for me, bless him. I used to go out with him many moons ago.’
Moons, Cancer? Who was writing this script? She must be older than she looks, he thought. Charlie was thirty-eight. He’d never mentioned a blonde woman, even though, like Roger, he’d had some relationships with women in his younger days and had told him about them… of course. They only ‘did’ honesty, didn’t they? All of a sudden, maybe not. At least… degrees of honesty? Roger suddenly stopped, gently grabbed her arm and turned and looked into her eyes as they reached the exit of the hospital by the newly-installed Cafe Nero concession: ‘Listen Dr Rashing, he’s been my boyfriend – mostly – for well over four years. Didn’t he ever tell you?’ She looked somewhat shocked and responded: ‘He never, ever told me that…’ Roger continued: ‘Guess who he was with in Cornwall over new year? Where did he tell you he was? At his parent’s place in Tottenham?’ He suddenly walked-off rapidly, keying-in Charlie’s name on his mobile then shouted: ‘the bottle of Krug on new year’s eve was from me, by the way’. He didn’t look back.
Charlie was still at work, so he had to leave a message: ‘I just met a secret ex of yours,’ He said, trying not to sound too angry, ‘blond, female, Chanel suit… you know the one, Rachel, Dr Rashing, she’s on the dermatological team at St Thomas’s. What a coincidence! And a Cancer, just like you too. How ironically appropriate. So do you still shag her occasionally and were you planning to start a family in your fervent desire to be Captain Normal? You’d better get your fine arse over to my place tonight and explain yourself’. Roger almost banged into the automatic doors in his rush to leave the hospital. They never open quickly enough when you’re angry, he thought, then took a deep breath and told himself: calm down, you fucking idiot. Poor Dr Rashing, she was obviously oblivious to his relationship with Charlie, plus she was on-side, health-wise. There was no reason to believe that Charlie and her had been intimate again recently, was there?
He decided that he should take a walk along The South Bank, breathe some virtual sea-air by the brown, broody River Thames, clear his head and, well… chill. He gazed at the Millennium Wheel thinking: how can you tell if it’s turning, why don’t they light it up more and where are the lasers? He considered checking out the Satchi Gallery, but figured that it might not necessarily be the best cultural experience for him in his current state of mind. Had Damien Hirst, Britain’s most famous, modern artist, ever featured biopsies in his medically-inspired works? He was admiring the almost communist-style, monumental architecture that was County Hall (it housed art galleries, an aquarium, the inevitable tacky souvenir shop, restaurants, a hotel and some rather bland apartments) when a crusty-looking young man with white dreadlocks shoved a leaflet in his face and said: ‘Hi! My name’s Damien, just mention my name on reception at The Satchi Gallery and you’ll get a free set of arty postcards!’ He was obviously Australian. ‘Cool, er, cheers mate.’ Said Roger, lapsing into an Aussie accent and taking the flier.
He had been meaning to check the new gallery out. He was here, life was weird… so why not? He’d had this posh girlfriend (girl… friend) in the eighties called Darcey. Her mother was a bit of a left-field, advertising legend (she’d come-up with the famous sixties slogan ‘made to make your mouth water’) at a major advertising agency, and Darcey had suggested that Roger would be a good ‘trend consultant’ for them, as he was a highly successful club promoter, had organised parties for superstars like Mariah Carey – the biggest female star in the world – and even Michael Jackson, when he they were doing shows in London, and generally had his finger on the pulse (whatever that was). So he’d been wheeled into their palatial, arty offices and been drip-fed copious amounts of champagne. Then they’d attempted to pick his brains on all sorts of levels. ‘Hellooo? Think I’m stooopid? You’re all taking the fucking piss!’ No response, apart from insipid, non-comprehending, watery smiles. So he smashed his flute (how poetic) on the floor, told them they were all cynical, manipulative bastards unless they paid him one hundred K a year, then tipped-over the table and walked out. Ah: such poignant memories of pretentious prats being hoisted by their own petards!
It had started to rain and was dark, windy and miserable, yet mournfully beautiful. He walked up the dramatically expansive granite steps to the gallery’s entrance, then turned back to look at the view across the river. There was a mass of twinkling lights reflecting in the Thames; a deep, wide, dark drain of swirling currents: brutally inviting if you were feeling suicidal, no doubt. Cold and strangely alluring even if you weren’t. He shuddered inwardly, recalling the awful death of many of his young friends in the infamous Marchioness river boat disaster in the eighties, then turned and approached the entrance.
There wasn’t another soul in sight apart from the smiling black woman who held the door open for him as he entered. ‘Thanks.’ He said and smiled (it was all a bit bleak, so how did she feel?)back as he entered what looked like a mausoleum. A brilliant choice of venue then. Marble walls were adorned with hundreds of names in a grand lobby. Bloody hell, he joked to himself, very Brit-Art, who did this, Damien Hirst, or was it the Chapman brothers? Of course, he knew very well that it was actually the lobby of the original building, which had once been the seat of local government in London. He loved private jokes. As he walked down the corridor he started to forget his problems and began to enjoy himself. This was an other-worldly experience.
‘Okay, love you babes, talk later!” Said the South African-sounding, surfer-dude cloakroom attendant on his mobile phone before he took various items of clothing, a bag and a trilby hat from the mousey, arty-professor-type man in front of Roger in the short queue. ‘Make sure that that hat doesn’t get crushed.’ Said the man in a whiney voice to the attendant, suggesting a creepy, neurotic and self-obsessed psyche. He was obviously American; not that that automatically made him a creep. Roger was tempted to wind him-up: ‘Hello, my name’s Justin Thyme, I’m a journalist writing for Alfresco*!’ Then the pervy-looking American academic would respond ‘Oh Al… yeah how is he?’
An artistic statement that was otherwise a normal, dark red, antique-leather Chesterfield sofa, apart from the giant orb bulging from its seat in the same material, was exhibited in the cloakroom area. Funny. But not art. Yeah, it made you think, but… you couldn’t sit on it. Roger set off around the gallery and found much to amuse and delight him. There was a lot of crap on view – literally, in the case of several paintings by the Turner Prize-winner Ben Ofili, who was famous for using camel dung on his canvasses, although Roger loved his work – but the gallery was generally stimulating, thought-provoking, entertaining and enervating and helped him escape from himself and those who didn’t understand him, at least for a little while. Hardly surprising really. There were some lovely fireplaces too, but they were also from the original building.
He was assessing the supposed artistic merit of Tracy Emin’s ‘Bed’ (what a messy, dirty girl!) in the spectacular, main gallery when his mobile rang. It was Charlie. ‘Hi,’ said Charlie, ‘how are you?’ ‘I’m fine Charlie,’ said Roger, ‘so how are you?’ ‘So how are you then?’ Asked Charlie. ‘No, how are YOU!?’ Replied Roger, then fired: ‘listen, did you fuck Rachel Rashing recently… or not?’ He could have been an ‘installation’ himself for all the other gallery visitors knew, as, apart from a bevy of Japanese tourists, the American academic, some Scandinavian tourists and a gaggle of giggling schoolgirls, visitors were a bit thin on the ground on this cold, winter evening. Plus, there was something naughty about having a live conversation with someone he was pissed-off with taking place in a ‘radical’ art gallery. Suddenly, he felt relaxed. Then Charlie sighed and said: ‘Well, if you must know, we did have a reunion quickie once, about five years ago, when we were a bit high. Just once. But look, I love you, you’re the best thing that ever happened to me. Where the fuck are you by the way?’ ‘Well, I’m in the Satchi Gallery in County Hall. I’ve recently been prodded and probed by over thirty specialists in St Stephens – including your secret ex, Rachel, she seems very nice, I must say – and now I’m going to go home to suspend myself in formaldehyde, as Damien Hirst is coming to dinner.’ ‘That’s, er nice, ‘ Said Charlie, not quite sure what Roger was talking about – some arty bollocks, wasn’t it? ‘So what IS the story on the cancer thing?’ He asked. ‘Well Charlie, great, mysterious and masculine love of my life,’ said Roger, as some Japanese tourists asked if they could take some pictures – he motioned an affirmative with a wave of his hand – ‘You’re Cancer, I’m Cancer, your ex-girlfriend Dr Rashing is a Cancer, but I’m the only one currently in danger of succumbing to it, although I think recent reports of my death have been somewhat exaggerated. Hang on Charlie…’ He stuck the mobile phone in his mouth for the benefit of the Japanese tourists and did a little arty dance. They made appreciative guttural noises as their camera bulbs flashed. ‘Charlie, you there?’ ‘Yeah, what’s going on?’ ‘Well, you’ve got to have a sense… of tumour, haven’t you?’
Steve Swindells (c) 4.2.04. All rights reserved.