Maria had blacked out somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. She’d woken up in the University Hospital Lewisham. They told her that she’d passed out in the planetarium at the Royal Observatory but in the darkness of the auditorium nobody had realised until the audience was returned from its tour of the solar system and the lights came back on. She remembered the sun. Distended solar flares erupting across its writhing, fiery surface. It looked, to her, like an angry, malignant tumour seen in detail through a microscope. She remembered the perspective pulling away from the sun and the sensation of spinning, facing out towards the neighbourhood of planets. Accelerating past Mercury and Venus and Earth. Fragments of the commentary stuck in her memory. Not the scientific facts but the more human attributions. Mercury, named for the messenger of the gods. Blake writing in tribute to Venus. Speak silence with thy glimmering eyes, And wash the dusk with silver. She remembered Mars. Another angry, red circle. Remembered it growing on the screen above her until it filled her vision, seeming to throb and pulse, bringer of war, until she slipped from consciousness.
She was sitting up in bed when they arrived.
“We were so worried,” said Sarah. “When you didn’t come back, we just didn’t know what to think.”
“Are you okay ?” asked Rob. “They won’t tell us anything because we’re not family or something. We tried to tell them that you’re our guest and that you don’t know anyone here but they said they can’t disclose information.”
Alex was silent. He hovered at the end of the bed, head down, shifting his weight between his feet.
“What happened ?” said Sarah.
Maria closed her eyes. The telling was the thing she had found hardest in the last few months. The shock she had felt in being told was something she felt again each time she passed on the news. She resented it. Resented seeing herself reduced to the victim of something random, an object of sympathy, in the eyes of those with whom she shared the shock. There were many things she had chosen to be in life and she wanted to be remembered for them. Not for this. Not this arbitrary act of war that her own body had declared on itself.
As she opened her eyes she pulled the delicately carved hair clip from its position above her left ear and laid it on the sheet in front of her. Tipping her head forwards she lifted her hair deftly from her scalp and placed it next to the clip, dark strands spread across the crisp whiteness of the bed. The exposed skin was smooth and pale save for a blotchy, swollen lump, crimson stained behind her right ear, the size of a dollar coin. It used to be the size of a dime. Look after the dimes and the dollars will look after themselves. That’s what Momma always used to say. She looked up at the three of them. Sarah had covered her mouth with her hand, eyes pricking with tears. Rob was shaking his head. Alex had pulled his arms across his chest, colour drained from his face. And then Sarah’s arms were round her and they were both crying.
In the aftermath, the three of them perched on the edge of her bed, Sarah closest, Alex furthest away, she told them all of it. She told them that she had been diagnosed nine months ago, had been told the chemo wasn’t working three months ago, and that she’d taken the decision to abandon the treatment and live what time she had left. Maybe six months. They didn’t really know. It had brought a certain clarity to her thinking. Not peace exactly, she felt restless for life rather than reconciled to death. She told them that she’d lost her husband ten years ago. That they’d never had children – she paused as she recounted this, an unspoken regret – and she’d found herself alone. Initially, she admitted, she’d felt lost and had only really made sense of her new circumstances when she’d moved away from Wichita and deeper into the country where, eventually, she’d found a new sense of perspective under grand and sweeping Midwestern skies. Found enrichment in the amplified solitude of a small town rather than the isolation she’d felt in a bustling, busy city.
They listened in silence, letting her talk. Sarah held her hand. Rob poured a glass of water. Alex grew increasingly agitated, rising from the bed and pacing the floor. When she seemed to have finished speaking he started to rock backwards and forwards on his heels. He spoke quietly and urgently.
“It’s unforgivable. I’m sorry. To leave you like that.” Words tumbled from him in a torrent, addressed as much to himself as to Maria. How could I have done that ? Someone should have been with you. I should have been with. I was with you. And then I left. For an overdue audit. Left to count things when you were counting on me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. He was shaking his head, fists clenching and unclenching until Rob put his hand on his shoulder.
“Hey, hey Alex. It’s alright. This wasn’t your fault. You didn’t know. None of us knew.”
“Rob’s right,” said Maria softly. “Don’t blame yourself for this. I chose to take the trip and I don’t regret it. Whilst I still have choices I’m damned if I’m not going to use them. Please, please don’t blame yourself.”
“But I should have been there,” said Alex.
Maria stared at him until he met her gaze. He noticed the cataract in her eye, the smudged white dots, stars through an unfocussed telescope.
“Not for me,” she said. “You shouldn’t have been there for me. I made my choice and don’t need looking after Alex. You need to make your choices. Trust me. Make them before they get made for you.”