Background: Story written for a competition in Woman & Home magazine. The story was the first runner up of 10 Prize Winners – so a proud achievement. Words required <2500. Words used – 2 423
The August sun burned white in the blue Tuscany sky. The shops were closed for the afternoon riposo and the streets of ‘Rapolana Terme’ were deserted. Arthur & Tracy made their way back to the Villa to seek out the cool of their bedroom. Even inside those centuries thick stone walls the heat was remorseless. They had stripped down and were lying on the bed looking forward to the cool of the evening and Chianti on the porch. A bumblebee surfed into the room on a wave of honeysuckle air from the garden and droned over their heads.
Arthur’s intentions were not amorous but when Tracy’s hand covered his own and drew it towards her body, a sweet longing stirred deep inside him. God how he loved this woman. She was his perfect partner and he seldom felt any differently. Hot day or not, he was going to enjoy the intimacy if that’s what his wife desired. “I want you to feel something” she said simply.
But her intentions were not lustful and Arthur’s romantic mood dissipated in a flash of panic as his hand touched the lower curve of her breast. Instead of the warm softness his fingers had anticipated they found a hard and definite profile. He shot up onto one elbow and started to probe all around the point. There was no doubt at all. The elongated lump was at least 2 or 3 cm long and defiled the perfection of her right breast.
Arthur tried to sound casual as he said to her “yes Tracy, I do feel something. It’s probably just a bit of fibrous tissue but I think to be on the safe side we should get it checked out—straight away”.
Arthur & Tracy Morgan had been looking forward to this Italian holiday for more than a year, and half the fun had been in the planning. How they had laughed and high-fived each other when the Rich couple from Milan had responded to their home exchange advertisement on the internet, confirming their willingness to swap a month in the medieval villa in Tuscany for a city sojourn in the Morgan’s home in Bishopscourt. Lorenzo and Carola De Laurentis would come to Cape Town at Christmas time when Arthur & Tracy could stay with their son or daughter. Arthur and Tracy would then travel to Tuscany in the Italian summer.
The 20 year old Audi that came with the villa package was a bucket of bolts that could hardly be called a car. It had to be started by joining wires under the bonnet, the steering wandered all over the road and there were no shock absorbers to speak of. It was only meant to be used for local shopping but now it would have to make the 35 km trip over the bumpy road to the hospital in Sienna. Not much was said between them as they dressed and got the car going. What could they say? They both knew what they had discovered.
On the way Arthur found himself reflecting on the wonderful experiences they had already been able to share since arriving in Italy. In Rome they had taken that red topless bus all around the city, hopping on and hopping off to see all the sights. When they walked, they moved from shadow to shadow and paused to cool off at little kiosks and devour the delicious Gelato ice-creams that only the Italians can make that way. They had tossed coins into Trevi fountain and giggled as they confided their secret wishes to each other. After Rome they had boarded an overnight ferry that took them all the way down to Sicily, the football island just off the toe of the Italian boot. There they had slogged around the hot ancient streets of Palermo and taken a cross-country coach to scenic Taormina on the east coast. They had marvelled at the great marble piazzas of Syracuse and they had toured the art and the science museums. This was where the famous Archimedes had lived during the time of the Greek occupation and where he had established the fundamental laws of mechanics that still dictate how physics works today. From Sicily they had taken an overnight train which crossed on a giant ferry to the mainland and then snaked its way up through the southern heartland till they got back to Rome again. From Rome a regional train had carried them all the way to Rapolana Termi and their Villa on the hilltop. From the house they could survey the rolling hills of the private estate, the holiday home of Mr. & Mrs. De Laurentis.
Most Italians don’t speak much English and it was difficult communicating at the hospital in Sienna. The authorities there were also not keen to take on foreign nationals as patients. After much arguing and cajoling with the aid of an iPhone translator however, Tracy was admitted for tests. They were pretty thorough and included mammograms, ultrasounds, X-rays and blood samples. It was confirmed that the cancer had been there for a long time and that surgery and other treatments would be required. The Italians were not willing to book Tracy in though. They advised that the situation was serious but not urgent and told her to go home to her own country for treatment. Tracy did not say much but Arthur knew that she was terrified.
“They’re pretty well on top of cancer these days” he told her as convincingly as possible. “A lumpectomy and a bit of radiation should sort the thing out and you’ll have a scar to brag about to your friends”. Then with a twinkle he added “Don’t you dare show any men though.”
Tracy could not respond with the same optimism. “I’ve seen this before in other women” she said. “This is only the beginning. The treatments will drag on for months, it will cost every penny we have and it will make no difference. I’ll be dead in three years’ time.” She was trying to sound nonchalant but Arthur could see the tears squeezing into the corners of her eyes.
It would be almost a week before they could get a flight back to South Africa and Tracy kept her composure and insisted that they continue with their sightseeing. They visited all the wonderful little hilltop towns called Monte-this and Monte-that, each with its own medieval hilltop castle with ramparts from which boiling oil could be showered onto the heads of invaders. Modern day visitors have to slog their way up the quaint cobbled streets to the castles, pausing at shops and markets along the way, nibbling on incredibly expensive truffles and sampling the various Italian wines on offer. Normally it would have been a fairy-tale experience, but although the cancer was never mentioned between them, its malignancy sapped the pleasure from every moment and left them exhausted. They went through the motions but their hearts were not there.
Back in Cape Town, the visits to the oncologists began and the treatments commenced. The Italian diagnosis was confirmed but it was even worse than the original tests had shown. There were 3 large tumours in the right breast and there was no chance of saving it. To Tracy, the impending loss of a breast was almost worse than the disease. She felt it would take her femininity from her. She was started on hormone therapy to reduce the size of the lumps and when the progress was too slow, the specialists decided to move on to chemo-therapy. The unilateral mastectomy followed some weeks later. After that it was months more of chemo and later radiation therapy. Tracy was built strong and she tolerated it all well but it took its toll on her spirits and drained the fun from her life. Arthur was always there for her and tried to help however he could.
“Don’t you lift a finger today my love” he would tell her when he could see she had not had a good night. He had a serious day-job to go to but somehow he always managed to get home for an hour or two to check that the day-nurse was doing what she should be doing and that Tracy was comfortable. He took over the paying of accounts and other tasks that Tracy had traditionally made her own and he tried in every way possible to ease her load. Despite his efforts he felt the strain too and their relationship was losing the closeness that had always been there. Tracy would get into moods and flair up over small irritations and none of it made life easier for anybody.
A year passed and rolled on into a second year and eventually all the treatments were completed. Tracy had lost weight and the scars were very real but Arthur frequently held her close and told her that she was still beautiful. A battery of tests was carried out and the doctors pronounced that they had won. She was all-clear. Arthur was overjoyed and even Tracy seemed to feel more settled by the pronouncement. That night to celebrate, Arthur took Tracy fine-dining. She was not allowed wine but he made sure that whatever else she wanted, she got. He had innocently suggested that she wear the lavender coloured dress he was so fond of and over dessert he presented her with a pinkish gray broach of Lithium Quartz to pin onto it. The Lithium they claimed, would heal the body and bring harmony to the relationship, and Tracy was visibly delighted that he had given her such a thoughtful present. She smiled at him and held the broach tightly against her body as she gave him a thank-you kiss. “I will always treasure it” she told him softly. “It’s a symbol that the bad times are over and we can start enjoying out lives again.”
But it was not quite that simple. The all-clear finding did little to rejuvenate the joyous and bubbly nature of the relationship they had once shared. Tracy was depressed and so Arthur was depressed with her.
Six months later, Tracy had to return to the hospital for a final set of tests. They had expected it to be a mere formality but the results came as a horrible shock. The cancer had returned. It had metastasised and was now creeping into her bones. The treatments had to start all over again but Arthur could see Tracey’s resolve slipping away. She lost more weight and became fatigued and every day was a bigger challenge than the one before it. Arthur did his duty and stood by her but the Tracy he had once known and loved so much was no longer with him. Once or twice through the cold of that winter he caught himself wishing that she could just slip away in the night and be out of her misery.
Christmas came that year and brought with it the sounds of laughter and bell’s in the streets. The shop windows were filled with red and green decorations and special gift offers to entice the customers. Tracy was very weak by then and not able to walk far at all. Arthur had acquired a wheelchair and pushed her round the shops to keep her distracted. She sat quiet in the chair with her head slightly to one side and said nothing at all and the world did not feel very Christmassy to Arthur. But then Arthur thought he heard Tracy say something. He was not even sure that she had spoken but he put his ear to her lips and she repeated her words. “Please will you buy me an ice-cream”? He froze in his tracks. How absurd it seemed in the middle of this ultimate depression for Tracy to be asking for ice-cream. We wasn’t sure if he had heard correctly and his head was spinning dizzily.
“Of course I’ll buy you an ice cream my love” he heard his voice saying. “I’ll go to Italy and buy you a whole truckload of Galati and I’ll buy you a deep freeze to keep it in if that’s what you want”.
Her voice was stronger now all of a sudden and he thought he saw a faint smile lifting the corners of her mouth. “No she said, I just want one local ice-cream. Make it a double scoop though and with chocolate sauce on top”.
“Oh!” Tracy was speaking again, “and I think we should buy a few Christmas decorations too, and a ham and a turkey and we should invite some of our friends and our kids to join us for Christmas dinner.”
“What a wonderful idea Tracy my love” was all Arthur could find to say. “You must be feeling better all of a sudden. You’ll be as good as new in a few months’ time at this rate.” He dropped to his knees on the floor beside the wheelchair and threw his arms around her, holding her tightly against him. “You’re going to be alright!”
Tracy simply smiled and said “we’re alive aren’t we? Let’s live our lives with every fibre of our beings.” Her eyes were laughing now and Arthur knew that she had found a great truth in the depths of her suffering. A truth about living in the now and that tomorrow has no meaning. Now was the time to set things right.
Christmas day arrived and the sun was shining. The house was decorated and a small pile of presents clustered under the Christmas tree awaiting the arrival of the family and friends. When they were finally all assembled there were 10 of them and they took up their places around the dining table amongst the crackers and the candles. Four of Arthur and Tracy’s best friends had joined, and their son and daughter were also both there with their 3 children, babbling and laughing as they opened their presents. Arthur sat at the head of the table and the others all sat around it. In front of the place next to Arthur, a glass of champagne bubbled and sparkled as it caught the light from the Christmas tree. Even brighter though was the Lithium Quartz broach in the centre of the placemat in front of that empty chair.
“Let’s drink a toast” said Arthur raising his glass. “To Christmas and our family and friends —but especially to Tracy, and The Spirit of Revival”