If you ask Geraldine Summers, she will tell you the exact moment when her lump originated. On that day, a young woman arrived at her doorstep. She would not have looked out of place in school uniform, but she was wearing a micro skirt and tight, navel-baring top.
‘Geraldine?’ the girl said, tossing her long fair hair and openly taking in the older woman’s ample proportions and dowdy clothes, ‘I’m Candy Clayton? Henry’s secretary?’ Each phrase was punctuated by a rise in her voice that posed a non-existent question. ‘Henry and me, well, it’s like, we’ve been having an affair for the last six months, and, well, like, Henry’s going to move in with me? I’ve come to get his things?’
The Candy child, sweet in name, but in Geraldine’s eyes, somewhat barbed in personality, had come to pack for him. Twenty years of marriage, it seemed, was of no significance to Henry.
The news, borne on a tiny poisoned arrow, was aimed at Geraldine’s heart, but it missed and lodged in her left breast. The cell in which it landed was so jolted by the invasion that the exquisite processes of gene duplication and chromosome detachment experienced a small blip. Or so Geraldine imagines.
That very small interruption to cell reproduction was perpetuated in each generation that the cell spawned. The small, hard lump which Geraldine found whilst she was showering one May morning, did not disappear as she hoped it would. It continued to grow. By August, when she thought she really ought to do something about it, it was so threatening that her doctor sent her straight off for a mammogram and the radiologist sent her direct to the hospital. Within twenty-four hours, lump, breast and lymph nodes had been removed. There was no time for counselling or debate. There was no choice.
The interesting thing was that the experience, though painful, was nowhere near as traumatic as Geraldine had expected. Though she briefly mourned her lost breast, she had always despised her flaccid lump of a body and was not emotionally attached to any part of it. The excision of the tumour seemed to signify the total removal of Henry from her life and memory. She felt suddenly freed of all the constraints which he had subtly applied during their marriage. All those bonds which had apparently been implied when she uttered her marriage vows, were gone. No longer did she need to be the stay-at-home wife, cooking, washing, cleaning, providing cocktails at six and satisfying connubial rights on demand. She could do anything now.
On returning from hospital, she sat in the garden under the bottlebrush and watched honeyeaters darting in to drink nectar from crimson blooms. ‘I’m going to sip the nectar of life, too,’ she announced to them. ‘I just haven’t decided what it is I shall do.’
She started to write wish lists. She left pen and paper wherever she thought she might be struck by an idea. By the toilet, obviously; next to the bedside lamp; on the kitchen bench; in her knitting bag.
Some things she was able to cross off as fast as she put them on. Trekking in Nepal was no longer an option and it was unlikely she’d be able to ride a camel across the Sahara. Both of those were too demanding of her body, but a slow trip in a minibus down the Silk Road should be possible. After that, she wanted a challenging career. A university degree shouldn’t be beyond her. Her brain was able to function well, though perhaps more slowly than in the past, in contrast to her overweight, and somewhat incapacitated body, which could not. The recurring theme which appeared on each of the little bits of paper seemed to be the furthering of her education.
Geraldine enrolled for the new academic year and turned up in the lecture theatre on the first morning with several pads of writing paper, folders, pens, (red, black and blue) and three sharpened pencils. She was enthralled from the first moment, stimulated by fresh thoughts, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of knowledge that had been accumulated in the university libraries. She was, however, disappointed to see so many of the young students knowingly exuding ennui and wasting this glorious opportunity in a haze of acrid smoke in the canteen.
‘Education is wasted on the young,’ she growled, speaking to the other mature-age students in general but aiming at one in particular. He was a Canadian, ten years her junior and very good-looking, as she boasted to her friends. The new and confident Geraldine, fresh from her Asian adventures, flirted with him without embarrassment. She had begun to like her body and was no longer ashamed of it. After all, it had done the right thing by her and it was still alive. By the end of first semester she had scored not only High Distinctions, but a live-in lover as well. She had overheard the gossip about their relationship. She knew all too well what the other students thought. ‘She must be loaded,’ they said. ‘Do you think she’s a good root?’ ‘Maybe he just can’t see that well.’ She didn’t care. She waggled her eyebrows and tweaked her lips into a Mona Lisa smile. They could say what they liked, she and Jackson were very happy together. He nurtured her once dormant mind and it flourished.
Time passed, scarcely noticed, much enjoyed, and she has her qualifications (a PhD in literature) and a career now. She is a university lecturer. In private she glows with pride. She thumbs her nose, metaphorically speaking, at Henry and at Cancer with a capital C.
‘I have survived you both,’ she says, ‘and I have gained strength from those encounters.’ In public she shrugs off compliments about her astonishing progress. In the opening class she introduces herself to her students.
‘Just so you don’t have to wonder,’ she says, ‘about my strange shape. I had a breast removed through cancer. As the more astute of you will notice, I survived. The rest of my strange shape is purely due to fat. I like my food. Despite that, I have a gorgeous toy boy, to whom I am very happily married.’ She pouts and smirks like a Jane Austen heroine (she would love to have a fan over which she could flutter her eyelashes) and feeds on the giggles in the back row. ‘So, there is no need to waste your energy on speculation. Well, that’s a potted version of my story. What I want from each of you is a paragraph – no, make that two – about yourself.’ She lowers her voice an octave and raises her eyebrows, ‘That you’re not too shy to share with the rest of us.’
She beams at her disciples with all the delight of recently acquired motherhood, but there is the odd occasion when her composure is jolted – when she glimpses a fair-haired girl in a micro skirt and navel-baring top.Geraldine knows full well, however, that there’s even less chance of Candy making an appearance at university than there is of another cancer making an appearance in her body. Doctor Summers is relishing the freedom of life post-Henry.