Annie Percik lives in London, where she is revising her first novel, whilst working as a University Complaints Officer. She writes a blog about writing and posts short fiction on her website (www.alobear.co.uk). She likes to run away from zombies in her spare time.
Take Your Lumps
“The universe doesn’t care about you, Hallie.” Darren shovels a mouthful of sticky rice into his mouth.
“Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying,” I reply, trying to catch his eye so I can lock gazes with him earnestly. He evades me, focusing on his lunch. “It’s been one thing after another all week, like all the crap has been piling up in a chute somewhere above me and the universe has just decided to flip the release catch.”
Darren shakes his head emphatically. “No, that’s not what I meant. There isn’t some cosmic tally, counting up how much good and bad you’ve experienced, and deciding when you need an infusion of suffering. The universe doesn’t care about you - it can’t because it doesn’t have a consciousness.” He grins wolfishly around half a spring roll. “And besides, even if it did, don’t you think it would have better things to worry about than how your life is going?”
Of course I know he’s right (and dammit, why does he always have to be right?), but it sure feels like someone or something has it in for me at the moment.
Up until a week ago, this year was going really well. Work was good, my relationship was starting to look long-term viable, I was running three times a week and feeling good about myself generally. For three whole months, I avoided eating too much, and even made significant progress on the great knitting project of doom. I was on a roll.
“How do you do it?” Darren said at our last monthly lunch, admiration clear in his voice. “I’m lucky if I can force myself to stagger once round the block when I get in of an evening, let alone running 3km before work and still finding time to bring your other half breakfast in bed. You’re a marvel, and I hate you.”
I just smiled smugly at him until he stuck his tongue out at me, and then poured another cup of green jasmine tea.
I should have known it wasn’t going to last. And, in fact, I did. I remember telling my mum on the phone one day that I was just waiting for the bubble to burst. She told me not to be ridiculous; that it was stupid to borrow trouble unnecessarily and that I should just appreciate what I had while I had it. Good advice, as it goes, but I was right, too.
It all started with the drip in the bathroom. My girlfriend, Shalamar (and yes, our friends do refer to us as “Hallie and Shallie”, in spite, or perhaps because of our vehemence in telling them not to), had moved into my flat that weekend, and I woke up on Monday morning to a post-it note on the bathroom door that read: “Leak in ceiling.”
Mary (it’s a pet name, so it’s not meant to make sense to anyone but me and her, okay?) tends to go to bed a lot later than me, and had evidently discovered said leak when she went to brush her teeth. To her credit, she had bunched up a towel under the drip, to prevent a puddle, but it was now my responsibility to effect a more robust solution.
Worryingly, the water was actually coming through the light fitting, so the first thing I did was flip the fuse that controlled all the mains lighting in the flat. The last thing I wanted was for one of us to get electrocuted, and it wouldn’t hurt us to live with plug-in lamps for a couple of days. I then retrieved the bucket from the cupboard under the microwave (one of the things I’d have to tell Mary about for future reference) and positioned it under the drip. I spread the towel out more widely beneath the bucket, just in case.
It was pretty early, but the damp patch around the light fitting was already spreading, so I bit the bullet and went upstairs to knock on the door of the flat above us. No response. So, I dashed off a quick email to Mary, asking her to try the neighbours on her way out, and another one to the managing agent of the building to let them know about the leak, and went off to work.
Mary said there was no reply when she tried upstairs, either, but the managing agent reported back that the landlord was now aware and would get a plumber in as soon as possible. Mary put her DIY hat on briefly and unscrewed the light fitting from the ceiling, to give the water an easier path through, while I watched in admiration from the bottom of the step ladder. I’ve never been much good with a screwdriver, so it’s great to have someone around the place who can tackle such tasks with confidence. She laughed at my anxious expression, kissed me on the nose, and told me not to worry.
So, I went to bed that night, after emptying the bucket down the sink, safe in the knowledge that no water-related disaster would befall us before morning. This was a state of mind that was summarily shattered by the sound of a dismayed exclamation, which woke me at 3am. I opened my eyes blearily to see Mary standing at the foot of the bed, shining a torch up the ceiling.
“What is it?” I asked.
She glanced over at me. “Sorry to wake you, but I think you’d better take a look at this.”
Heart sinking, I pushed myself up out of bed and followed her round the flat like a lost puppy, as she used the torch to illuminate her discoveries. It was almost raining in the bathroom. The visible damp patch had spread across the entire ceiling, there was water dripping from both the light fitting and the heater, and droplets were collecting in a neat, regimented line between them.
“And that’s not all,” Mary said, leading me back through to the bedroom.
She pointed the torch upwards and I saw that the damp had spread through to that ceiling as well, and a small drip had started at the edge and was sliding gently down the wall. As I struggled to understand the enormity of the problem, the light was already retreating, and I looked round to see Mary disappearing into the en suite bathroom. I followed with great trepidation, and saw it was the same story in there. A soft plinking sound drew my eye to where water was intermittently bouncing off the tiles around the sink. Mary looked at me, her expression grim.
“Well, shit,” I said.
We scurried around for a few minutes, lining all the carpets with folded towels where the water was likely to spread, and positioning whatever receptacles we could find under the actual drips. The washing up bowl, mixing bowl, and pyrex pie dish were all called into service, joining the faithful bucket in the battle against the leak. It didn’t take long before our defences were arrayed as best they could be, and we both fell into bed.
Mary was snoring in seconds, but I lay awake, straining to hear the various drips, and imagining the bathroom ceiling collapsing altogether. At 4am, I gave up on getting back to sleep, and wandered through to the kitchen to make some tea. When I can’t sleep, I knit. Knitting is a fantastic pastime because it makes watching TV feel productive, and I spent a fairly happy three hours feeling very productive until it was time to get ready for work.
Having to get through the work day on four hours’ sleep is not my favourite way to spend a Tuesday. I managed to focus enough to get through my email during the morning, but was seriously flagging by the time I got back to my desk after lunch. So, I wasn’t exactly at my best when I got a phone call from Mary at three o’clock.
“It’s my dad,” she said, her voice tight with suppressed emotion. “He’s had a heart attack.”
“Oh god,” I replied, nausea instantly roiling in my stomach. “What else do you know?”
“Nothing,” she said, and I could hear how much effort it was taking for her not to cry. “Can you meet me at King’s Cross as soon as you can get there? I want to get the next train to Leeds.”
My mind was reeling and the stupidest things started bypassing the filter to my mouth without consulting me.
“But I haven’t packed anything, and I’ve got a meeting in twenty minutes.”
“There are shops in Leeds, Hals.” Mary sounded incredulous. “And can’t you miss one meeting? Please.”
The desperation in her tone completely failed to register and my thoughts still insisted on being ridiculous.
“But how long are we going to be up there? I’ve got a hair appointment after work tomorrow.”
“If you don’t want to come, just say so! I’ll go on my own.”
The level of selfishness I was apparently demonstrating finally penetrated the fog in my brain and I snapped into the right frame of mind at last.
“No, of course I’ll come,” I said hurriedly. “Sorry, I don’t know what I was thinking. I’ll leave right now and meet you at the station in twenty minutes. Hang in there, I’m sure it’ll all be fine.”
“Okay,” Mary said in a small voice that was totally at odds with her usual calm confidence.
There’s nothing like the illness of a parent to transform you straight back into a frightened child. I wanted to erase the last few minutes of total block-headedness and just hold her, but that would have to wait.
My boss is awesome. She listened to my garbled explanation as I shut down my computer and struggled into my coat.
Then she just said, “Go. We’ll cover things here.”
“Thanks!” I called over my shoulder on the way out the door. “I’ll keep an eye on my email.”
And then I was running down the stairs and out into the street, my bag banging against my side. It’s actually quicker to walk to King’s Cross from my office than it would be to get the tube, so that’s what I did. Mary texted me partway there to say she’d booked us tickets on the 3:35pm train, so I picked up my pace a bit to make sure I’d be there on time. She was waiting for me by the ticket barrier, her face tense and pinched. I threw my arms around her and gave her a fierce hug.
“Sorry about earlier,” I said. “Of course I want to go up with you.”
She sniffled a bit but held it together. “Okay,” she said. “We’d better get a move on.”
We made it to the train with a few minutes to spare and managed to find two unreserved seats in the last carriage. Mary was very quiet on the journey up. She told me she’d had a call from her mother just after it had happened. Denise was understandably very shaken and knew nothing other than that Mary’s father, Osmond, had collapsed at work and been rushed to hospital. She was on her way to join him, and hopefully find out more, and asked Mary to get there as soon as she could.
After that, Mary retreated into whatever nightmare scenarios she was presumably imagining, and didn’t really respond when I tried to be reassuring. Eventually, I just held her hand, and shared the silence.
When we got to the hospital, Denise was in the waiting room. She stood up as we entered and Mary ran into her arms.
“Darling, it’s okay,” Denise said, just loud enough for me to hear her. “They think he’s going to be okay. I would have called you, but I left my mobile at the house.”
Mary huffed a watery laugh. “Typical,” she said. “One day, I’m going to tie it round your neck.”
Denise gave her a squeeze and released her. Then, she turned to me.
“Hello, Hallie,” she said. “Thanks for coming.”
I get on reasonably well with Mary’s parents. I’ve only met them a few times, but they’ve been unfailingly civil towards me so far. I have the distinct impression they don’t really approve of me, though they’ve never come out and said so. It’s not my gender, or even the colour of my skin (they’re remarkably accepting of that kind of thing); I think it’s just that, in their eyes, I’ve reduced their beautiful and exotic Shalamar to plain old Mary, and they simply don’t like it. They evidently don’t appreciate irony.
Denise told us what the doctors had said. Apparently, there was a blockage restricting the blood flow to Osmond’s heart, which caused the attack. He arrived at the hospital in good time and they quickly inserted a stent that fixed the problem, and the prognosis was good. In fact, they said, it should prevent similar problems in future and would likely result in him being considerably healthier than he had been for some time.
Visiting hours were over for the day, and thankfully the situation with Mary’s dad wasn’t serious enough to allow us access after hours, so the three of us made our way briefly round the still-open shops so Mary and I could stock up on some essentials for our stay. Then, we hailed a cab and headed back to Mary’s parent’s place, on the outskirts of the city.
As Mary and I curled together in her childhood room, after a tasty takeaway, Mary held me close.
“I’m glad you’re here,” she murmured against my hair. “I can’t imagine what it would have been like taking that train journey on my own. You really helped me keep it together. Thanks.”
“I didn’t do anything,” I demurred. “Except act like a idiot, and then fail to think of anything useful to say for hours on end.”
Mary snuggled closer. “You were there for me. That means a lot.”
Osmond was on fine form when we all trooped in to see him the following morning.
“I feel ten years younger!” he boomed in his big voice, holding out his hands and taking his wife and daughter into his embrace.
I stood awkwardly at the foot of the bed, and nodded when he included me in his wide smile.
“That’s as may be,” Denise said sternly, “but you won’t be acting like it for some time. The doctors may say you’ll be fine, but you still need to take it easy for a while, and make sure you follow whatever instructions they give you.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Osmond said with mock gravity, staring down his wife’s steely glare. Then he turned to Mary. “Sorry for giving you such a scare, sweetheart. You needn’t have come all this way.”
“Don’t be silly, Dad,” Mary said, squeezing his hand. “Of course we came. I’m just glad you’re okay.”
I headed back to the house and spent the afternoon catching up on my work email, while Denise and Mary returned to the hospital for afternoon visiting hours. We all went out to dinner at the Italian round the corner in the evening, and Mary said we would be able to travel home the following day.
“I’ll pop back to see Dad first thing,” she told me, “and then we can get the train back to London late morning.”
“As long as that’s okay with you,” I said, twirling my fork in my pasta. “We can stay longer if you want.”
“No, it’s fine,” she said, smiling. “I’ll probably come back on Saturday, but there’s no need for either of us to miss more work, since Dad seems okay.”
I woke up on Thursday morning, looking forward to life getting back to normal again. I emailed my boss to let her know I’d be back at work the next day, then made my way to the bathroom to get dressed. And that’s when I discovered the lump in my right breast. My first thought was that the universe was really laying it on thick, and that the last thing I needed was to be worrying about this when I was supposed to be supporting Mary. I finished getting dressed, managing to reach a kind of zen detached state whereby I refused to let anxiety consume me unnecessarily. Oddly, the internet actually helped quite a bit. Usually, looking up symptoms online leads to ridiculous panic about impending death but, actually, in this instance, it calmly informed me that 90% of breast lumps turn out to be something entirely benign, but that it’s always best to get them checked out as soon as possible anyway, just in case.
I made it through breakfast without mentioning anything, deciding that Mary, and especially Denise, didn’t need to be burdened with something that would most likely turn out to be nothing. We all travelled to the hospital together, and Mary and I bid farewell to Osmond, who was still remarkably chipper, given the circumstances.
By the time we arrived back at the flat, though, the worst case scenarios for my health had started going round and round in my brain, to the extent that I was finding it difficult to focus on anything else. As I opened the mailbox and dug out the accumulated post, I cracked.
“I’m going to be really selfish for a minute,” I said to Mary, who stopped dead in her tracks and stared at me in concern. “I need to tell you about something that’s really worrying me, even though it probably doesn’t need to be worried about, and then you’ll have to worry about it too, and I’m really sorry.”
“What?” she demanded. “What is it?”
“This morning, I found a lump in one of my breasts,” I said in a rush, “but the internet says there’s a 90% chance it’ll turn out to be nothing and I’ll get an emergency appointment with the doctor tomorrow to get it checked.”
Mary shrugged. “Okay.”
I goggled at her. “Okay?” I spluttered. “Is that it?”
“Well, you just said it wasn’t something either of us should worry about, so I’m not going to worry about it. Obviously, I want to know what the doctor says tomorrow, but don’t be surprised if I’ve forgotten about it by then.”
I just continued to stare at her in dismay, until she closed the distance between us and gave me a quick hug.
“I’m sorry you’re worrying but, as you say, you’ll find out tomorrow, and there’s no point getting stressed about it in the meantime.”
Her total unconcern and bald practicality surprisingly made me feel tremendously better. My calm, confident Mary was back, and her refusal to be worried unnecessarily filtered through to my brain more effectively than my own protestations of the same thing could do.
The lump was thrown straight out of my mind when we entered the flat to discover the drips in the bathroom had moved about a foot further along the ceiling in our absence and all the towels I had lain down on the floor were soaked through. We both leapt to action stations, collecting up the sodden towels, replacing them with fresh ones, and moving the bucket and washing up bowl into new positions to catch the still dripping leaks.
It was only mid-afternoon, so I went straight over to the managing agent’s office over the road and asked to speak to our contact, Jenny. She came out to speak to me almost immediately.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, when I explained the situation. “I spoke to the landlord of the upstairs flat on Monday and he assured me he’d get the problem fixed as soon as possible.”
“Well, he clearly hasn’t,” I replied, reminding myself that it wasn’t Jenny’s fault and that I needed her on side to get things sorted out.
“Leave it with me,” she said, briskly. “I’ll call him right now and get him to arrange for a plumber to come out before the end of the day.”
“Thanks,” I said. “We’ll be in the rest of the afternoon, so tell him the plumber should come down to speak to us before he leaves.”
“Will do,” Jenny said, and I headed back to the flat.
I spent the afternoon triaging my work email and listening to the water dripping in the bathroom, bedroom and en suite. Mary got sick of me twitching about it and actually went into the office for a while, but I didn’t want to risk missing the plumber, and nobody was expecting me in until the next day, anyway.
At about six o’clock, I heard banging noises from upstairs and, for a while, my anxiety about the bathroom ceiling falling in ratcheted up a notch. Eventually, I couldn’t take it any more and went upstairs to find out what was going on.
In hindsight, it wasn’t the best introduction to our neighbours, since I leapt straight in with, “Is the leak being fixed?”
The elderly gentleman who had answered the door looked at me in startlement, until another, younger man popped his head round from the bathroom and gave me a wide smile.
“You’re from downstairs, right?” He didn’t wait for me to answer. “Don’t worry. I’ve found the leak and I’m just about done. The dripping should stop in a little while.”
“Thank you!” I beamed at him, nodded to my neighbour and fled back down to my own flat.
True to the plumber’s word, the dripping had all but stopped by the time Mary came home. She was carrying a bag from which the delicious smell of curry emanated.
“I figured you wouldn’t have been able to leave the flat to get anything in for dinner,” she said.
“What a star you are!” I enthused, taking the bag from her and bustling into the kitchen with it. “The leak’s fixed!”
“Well, that’s a relief,” Mary called through from the bedroom, where she was taking her shoes off. “At least you’ll stop worrying about imminent collapse now.”
Her mention of worrying reminded me of the lump, and my anxiety about that instantly took up residence in my brain again. I didn’t say anything about it, though, instead focusing on dishing up the takeaway. I would really have to make time for a run at the weekend, since I hadn’t had much exercise all week, and had been over-eating quite considerably. The curry was great, though, and well worth not having to think about cooking.
I slept better than I thought I would, but got up early to have a shower. At eight o’clock on the dot, I phoned my doctor’s surgery and listened to the familiar recorded message about opening hours and how to get repeat prescriptions online. Then, it rang once and cut off. I tried again and the same thing happened. Now, I know from past experience that several emergency appointment slots are made available every day for people who ring in first thing, and that it can be difficult to get through, which was why I had called immediately the surgery opened. Was it possible the receptionist was hanging up on people because she didn’t want to take calls yet? I gritted my teeth and dialled again. This time, after the recorded message, it rang three times and someone actually answered.
“Can I get an appointment for as soon as possible this morning, please?” I asked, trying not to let my frustration and desperation leak through into my tone.
“Certainly,” the receptionist said. “Let me have a look. I can give you 9:40am.”
Foolishly, I wasted valuable time with a completely pointless question. “You haven’t got one earlier?”
“I’m afraid not,” she said, “and now that one’s just gone. The next available slot is at 10am.”
“I’ll take it!” I cried frantically, imagining all the appointment times disappearing one by one as I dithered, until there were none left.
The receptionist took my details and booked me in, leaving me with nearly two hours to kill. I emailed my boss to apologise profusely and let her know I wouldn’t actually be in until nearly lunchtime, and then called Jenny at the managing agent’s office to let her know the leak was fixed.
“Oh, good!” she said. “I assume you’ll be wanting to make an insurance claim to repair the damage?”
I hadn’t actually thought about it, but there was significant discolouration on the ceilings of three separate rooms, and some of the plaster had come down. Jenny gave me the details of the insurer, along with the number for a builder who would be able to give us an estimate for the repairs. He was my next call, and it turned out he was happy to come round the next day to take a look, even though it was Saturday.
I ended up leaving far too early for my doctor’s appointment, just because I was too impatient to hang around the flat, waiting for it to be time to go. So, instead, I had to sit in the waiting room for ages, until my name was finally called.
I was pleased to see that the duty doctor was a woman, though it wouldn’t really have put me off if it had been one of the male doctors. She gave me a welcoming smile and gestured for me to sit down.
“Hi, I’m Dr Henderson. How can I help you today?”
I told her, and her demeanour immediately shifted to be very concerned and focused.
“Now, I understand this can be quite worrying, and I’m glad you came in right away.” Her gaze was intent, presumably to demonstrate that I had her full attention. “If you’d like to step behind the curtain and remove your shirt and bra, I’ll take a look and try to figure out what we’ve got.”
I did as instructed, and let her know when I was ready. She joined me behind the curtain, her eyes instantly drawn to the patch of discoloured skin on the side of my right breast. Her body language relaxed, and she smiled.
“Is that it?” she asked, pointing at the spot, and sounding quite contemptuous.
“Um, yes,” I said, suddenly feeling a bit foolish.
“Oh, that’s fine, then. That’s just a skin lump. Nothing to worry about at all. If it was anywhere else on your body, I’d just tell you to go home, but you might as well book a follow-up appointment in a couple of weeks, just in case. It’ll probably be gone by then, though.” She waved at me, dismissively. “You can put your clothes back on.”
Her complete shift in attitude was a little disconcerting, but also rather comforting, much like Mary’s reaction had been the day before. It was good to know the doctor was so sure my lump was nothing to worry about, and I felt considerably lighter. I made another appointment with the receptionist on my way out, and then set off for work.
It was actually quite a relief to get to the office and just have mundane work things to deal with for the rest of the day. After all the ups and downs of the week, I was feeling a bit discombobulated and rather drained. I stayed a bit late to catch up on everything, and then it was the weekend. Hurrah!
Mary and I had a quiet night in, snuggled up on the sofa, watching The Hunger Games. I had totally forgotten to let her know what happened at the doctor’s, but she had scored quite a few brownie points by texting me late morning to find out. She agreed that the doctor could have been a bit less dismissive, since her attitude might make me less likely to go and get things checked out in future, but was glad to hear I had been reassured.
Saturday morning brought the builder, who turned out to be a cheery Kiwi called Stu, with a big beard and a bigger belly. He stomped round the flat, inspecting the damage and muttering about skimming and how difficult it might be to match the existing dappled effect on the bedroom ceiling.
Mary was about to leave to catch her train back up to Leeds, but she followed him around quite eagerly, listening intently to everything he said.
“We don’t really care about it matching exactly, do we, Hals?” she said, glancing over her shoulder at me.
I shrugged and shook my head.
“While you’re here, though,” she continued, “could you give us a separate quote for getting some other repairs done? Some of the tiles in the bathroom are cracked and all the skirting boards could do with repainting. And there’s some damage in the kitchen that it would be great to get sorted.”
Stu went through every room, clearly totting up all the potential work in his head, then eventually joined us in the living room.
“To redecorate the whole place,” he said, “would be about a grand.”
Mary looked at my brightly. “That’s not too bad. And it would be nice to tidy the place up a bit and fix some of the problems.” Her eyes shined hopefully.
Stu looked back and forth between us, then said, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Your excess on the insurance will be £250, so I’ll add that onto the estimate anyway, and give it back to you after I’m paid. Then, I’ll push the estimate as close to the thousand as I can get, and whatever’s left over from the water damage repairs can go towards the other stuff.”
This made me a bit uncomfortable, but Mary just beamed at him.
“That would be awesome - thanks!” she said. “Now, I’ve got to run. I’ll see you late tomorrow, Hals.”
I bade her farewell, a bit dazed, and then was left alone with the clearly dodgy builder. Still, he seemed to be tipping things in our favour, rather than not, so I just went along with it. I gave him my email address to send the estimate through, then got ready to go out myself, since it was time for my monthly lunch date with Darren.
Darren regards me speculatively.
“So, what you’re saying is - the leak is fixed and you’re going to get some free building work done, Shallie’s dad is fine and feels better than he has in years, and it turns out you don’t have cancer, after all?”
He snorts. “Then what are you complaining about? It sounds to me as if the universe likes you just fine!”
Which is not an unreasonable point, as it goes.