I am an orphan. I say these words aloud to myself and hear them move around the room and then disappear into the carpet. They sound like a lie, even though they are true. An orphan is small, scared and hopeful, battling bravely in an institution or bowling along a country road in a dog-cart towards a new home where she won’t be wanted at first. Orphans have red hair, wide vocabularies, and a carpet-bag containing their earthly possession. An orphan is a child with a destiny.
I know the literature. ‘Orphans of the Storm: the journey to self-actualisation in literature for children.’ We don’t yet teach a module with that title, but we may well do so one day. It has exactly the right ring to it. Our students like modules which demand opinions rather than extensive reading. My studies in English Literature have brought me here, to this room where words sink into the cord carpet, to this university staff flat in a concrete block full of students.
They are arriving now. Parents are unloading cars, lugging TVs up echoey staircases, checking the wiring on the communal microwave, opening and then quickly closing the bathroom doors. Soon they’ll be gone and the kids will be on their own. Big, bonny temporary orphans with credit cards.
My mother died during the summer. I practise the words and they too disappear. When last term ended I was a woman with a mother whom I visited each weekend. Some colleagues knew why, others didn’t. I had learned a new vocabulary. I would say ‘Macmillan nurse’ and on one or two faces there would shine complete understanding. On others, not a flicker.
Esther to Fanny, this is Esther to Fanny, come in.
I listen. I’m not daft enough to think there’s going to be any answer. My name is Esther. My mother’s name was not Fanny.
Last term I read out to my students a letter from a woman with breast cancer. This letter was addressed to a woman called Esther. The writer’s name was Fanny, Fanny Burney, and in her letter she described a mastectomy performed on her without anaesthetic, in 1811.
It isn’t my period. It didn’t fit into the module at all, and some of my students were annoyed at the waste of their time. But I thought it was worth reading to them, all the same. I came across Fanny Burney’s letter by chance, while I was searching yet another website for information about mastectomy. And there was Fanny Burney’s portrait. Her face was composed but she looked as if something had amused her very much a few minutes earlier. I began to read her letter to Esther.
The eighteenth century is not my period, but it has always appealed to me. There is something about those small, fierce, brave people who dressed elaborately, smelled awful, gushed about feeling and worshipped Reason. Fanny Burney, for all she lived forty years into the nineteenth century, is one of them to the bone. I am glad it’s not my period. I wouldn’t want to add to it, deconstruct it, contextualise it, demystify it, or explain it in any way.
I didn’t ask my students to analyse Fanny’s letter. I read it out to them, that’s all. They are too big and bouncing, healthy and beautiful. They frowned and shifted in their seats and flinched and probably felt glad that things like that only happen to really old people. Fanny Burney was fifty-nine! No wonder she got ill, what else could she expect? Beside, at fifty-nine, should you really care so much about your life any more? It is the deaths of children and young people that rate as tragedies, just as it is children who make real orphans. Fanny Burney’s mastectomy, performed without anaesthetic, gave her another twenty-nine years of life. I watched my students doing the calculation, and reckoning that it was hardly worth it. Who wants to suffer in order to be old for even more years?
No, I am not doing them justice. They flinched, as I did. Unconsciously, some of the girls brought up their hands to cover their breasts, as I’d done. Fanny got through to them.
‘I don’t see why she agreed to have the operation. I mean, I’d rather die than go through that!’ one girl said after I had finished reading. ‘I mean, she wasn’t young, was she,’ she added, glancing at me.
Esther to Fanny. No, you weren’t young. My mother wasn’t young, either. She was even older than you. She was seventy-three. If she didn’t receive the very best of modern medical treatment, she certainly had the nearly-best. She had a mastectomy, radiotherapy, chemotherapy. Two years later she developed a secondary in her left lung. She had more radiotherapy, oxygen, a nebuliser, massage, physiotherapy to keep her lungs as clear as possible. They gave her baths in a jacuzzi at the hospice. She liked the jacuzzi, or at least I think she liked it. She was so polite that it was hard to tell.
My mother had everything. GP appointments, clinic appointments, a second opinion, referral for rehab, referral to pain clinic, a place in a trial, a re-referral, another X ray, a series of blood-tests, a change of consultant, a lavender massage, a Macmillan nurse, a commode, a bell by her bed and a tube up her nose, a bed in the hospice. She was so lucky to get it, that bed in the hospice.
Esther to Fanny. You had none of that. Each doctor in your story had a name. They trembled, or grew pale, or stood aside hanging their head at the thought of the pain they were about to give you. They colluded with you in sending your husband out for the day. They knew, as you did, that he would not be able to endure witnessing your operation. They told you the truth: ‘Je ne veux pas vous tromper - Vous Souffrirez - vous souffrirez beaucoup.’
Yes, they were clear about it. They were men of the eighteenth century, even though the century had turned. They told you that you would suffer a great deal. They told you that you must cry out and scream. They stammered, and could not go on, because their sensibility was as powerful as their sense of reason. When the moment came for the operation to begin, you wanted to run out of the room. But Reason took command in your fierce, bright eighteenth-century mind, and you climbed onto the bedstead where your breast was to be amputated. There were seven men around your bed. I wonder how they smelled, and how often they washed? They were the greatest doctors of their age, but probably they didn’t even wash their hands before they cut off your breast. They put a cambric handkerchief over your face, and through it you saw the glint of polished steel.
But they also cured you. They cut off your living breast and scraped you down to the bone to search out the last cancerous atoms. You screamed all the time, except when you fainted. You recovered, even though everyone concerned in your operation was left pale as ashes, in their black clothes. You saw the blood on them as you were carried back to your bed. You were about to live for another twenty-nine years.
It’s a strange story to our ears, Fanny. How exquisitely you act out the hard logic of the eighteenth century, and keep your eyes open under the cambric handkerchief. It is only semi-transparent anyway, so you see most of what goes on as the men prepare to operate upon you. They could have found a thick black piece of cloth and tied it around your eyes as a blindfold, but they didn’t. I have the feeling that they respected you too much.
And the emotion around that bed! Imagine if one of the doctors treating my mother had turned ashen, and wept. If he had told her the truth. ‘Vous Souffrirez - vous souffrirez beaucoup.’
Nobody said it. But you suffered, Mum. You suffered a great deal. There was a smell in the hospice which we never mentioned, although I know you smelled it as well as I did. It was the smell of death, literally: it was the smell of the cancer in the old man who shared your two-bed room. He was curtained, out of sight, but we could smell him. I had never known that such a thing would be. Sometimes I would gag, and turn it into a cough.
‘It’s not very nice, is it?’ you whispered once, sadly, pitifully. But in a very soft whisper, so no-one else would hear.
Esther to Fanny. I am glad that you screamed throughout the twenty minutes of your operation, except when you fainted. To restrain yourself might have seriously bad consequences, your doctors told you beforehand. What miracles of sense and feeling those men must have been! Knowing that you would scream, you must scream, and anticipating it by actually charging you to scream and informing you that to do otherwise might be dangerous for your health. Knowing that you would have enough to contend with, under that semi-transparent cambric handkerchief, without any false shame.
My mother hated to make a fuss. She was very grateful to all the doctors and nurses. If they didn’t do their jobs well, she had an answer for it. They were understaffed, run off their feet. That nurse over there, Esther, she’s got an eight-month old baby, she’s been up half the night with him cutting his molars. I don’t know how she does it.
I wanted to shake that nurse until her teeth rattled. She was late with the drugs round. My mother was waiting, waiting. There was sweat on her yellow face but she wouldn’t let me ring the bell.
‘For God’s sake, Mum, it’s what they’re here for. They’re supposed to be taking care of you, that means bringing your tablets when you need them.’
But my mother turned her head aside wearily. ‘It doesn’t do to get across them. You don’t know, Esther.’
Esther to Fanny. You were utterly in those doctors’ power, just as Mum was. You saw the flash of steel through your cambric handkerchief. You felt and heard that blade scraping your breastbone. You were a heroine and the doctors treated you as one.
We have moved on. We have chemo and radio and prosthesis, and scans to show the travels of those ‘peccant attoms’ of cancer which your doctors feared so much that they scraped you down to the bone. What can I say? I can’t re-read your account without flinching. You couldn’t re-read it at all.
Mum is dead and I’m an orphan. Two things that don’t sound as if they can possibly be true. Mum didn’t want to cause any trouble, and she didn’t cause any trouble. The doctors barely noticed her really.
My students are pounding up and down the stairs with their posters, IKEA lamps, armfuls of CDs and clothes. They are flushed, healthy, on the whole averse to study but only too pleased to be back at uni with all their friends. Some of them will choose my module on Elizabeth Bishop. These days it is perfectly possible to get to the end of a degree in English Literature without venturing into the eighteenth century at all.
Esther to Fanny. At the end of your long letter you apologised to your sister. ‘God bless my dearest Esther - I fear this is all written - confusedly, but I cannot read it - and I can write no more -’
I put my hand out to touch that semi-transparent cambric handkerchief which time has laid across you. Your letter cuts like polished steel, although I am not, dear Fanny, your Esther at all.