When the phone goes off early in the morning at weekends I always know it’s my mother-in-law. Nobody else rings us on the landline, or not much anyway. More to the point, anybody else would realise that nine a.m. is an unacceptable time to receive telephone calls. The first time it happened I was convinced that there must have been an emergency, that we would be throwing on our clothes and rushing to an Oxfordshire hospital, but I soon realised that we just had different ideas about these things. Similarly, if you know what’s good for you, you don’t ring her when Coronation Street is on. Those have been the rules for far, far longer than I have been on the scene: it’s the only bit of the television schedules I know with any degree of certainty.
They talk on the phone a lot, more and more these days, and it’s always a cheerful chatter, often about nothing much. Sometimes Rose rings to get things off her chest, and I see Kelly curled up on the sofa moving the conversation along with a volley of quick, gentle syllables, a “right” here or an “uh huh” there. On the very rare occasion she’ll say “mum, you’ve told me that before”, but never with any frustration. It’s just nice to hear the voice of someone you care about, even if they say what you know they’re going to say. Sometimes knowing what they’re going to say is part of the comfort.
The phone calls can be for the strangest reasons – to ask Kelly whether she can pick something up from the shops, for consumer advice, for tips about the computer Rose now almost knows how to use, or just to say tell her to change the channel because there’s something on television Rose wants Kelly to see. The curious network that holds my in-laws together seems to work like that; many’s the time that Kelly’s phone has pinged with a text from her sister Heidi. “Put Radio 2 on! Put Radio 2 on now!” it will say, and Kelly will, and the soundtrack of their past will seep from the speakers into the kitchen like the incense of nostalgia.
My mother in law rings on Saturday morning and when I pick up the phone the first thing she says, apart from “It’s only me” (she always says “it’s only me”, even though it’s a special occasion for Kelly every time she calls) is “I didn’t wake you up, did I?” That counts as progress, I suppose. This call is to finalise Kelly’s visit – she is staying overnight and taking her to hospital the next morning for an MRI scan. I sit up in bed tapping on my phone and waiting for my tea to cool down, half listening to the back and forward of the two most organised members of a family which is not good at making plans, trying to do exactly that. It happens every time but that’s part of the comfort for me, too.
At the end, Kelly passes the phone back to me. “She wants to talk to you” she says. So we chatter away about my recent visit to the specialist, the latest in a long line of doctors to declare me beyond the help of conventional medicine. This one was private, which only really seemed to mean that the diagnosis was preceded by a wait in a nicer room and delivered across a more attractive desk. As so often, I found myself considered well enough not to require treatment, even if I was not well enough to find that helpful. “There are some experimental methods used in other parts of the country.” he’d said cheerfully. “But there’s no evidence that they work.” I hadn’t minded that so much; experimental and medicine, in my book at least, are not words that belong in the same sentence. At the end there was an embarrassing moment of expectant silence. I was waiting for him to come up with something else, he was waiting for me to thank him and tell him that I felt reassured. I can’t imagine he would have been anywhere near as disappointed as me.
I don’t tell Rose all of that, I don’t want to burden her with her MRI on the horizon, so instead I say “They don’t really know what to do. I could have the tests again and see if they’re different this time.”
“At least it’s nothing serious.”
“Well, I suppose so. Don’t worry about the MRI by the way, I had one last year and they’re nothing to be scared of. You just have to lie still and try and forget about the noise.”
“I don’t understand it. I was never ill, not for the last thirteen years, and now it’s all come along at once.”
I smile, because she’s not alone; I have exactly the same problem. We’re the unlucky ones where it’s one thing after another, and they’re always things – my RSI for example, or her tinnitus – that are the very edge of medical science, things nobody understands, things that just “go away” or that you’re supposed to learn to ignore. (“You’re a special case, aren’t you?” Kelly had said as we drove away from the hospital. If only it was the right kind of special). If you go to a doctor with a tangible problem with an obvious cause that they know how to fix, they’ll fix it. They may tell you off about your lifestyle first, but then they’ll fix it. But for the people like Rose and me, at the fuzzy edge of the graph where there are no straight lines and nothing makes sense, they don’t want to know. They don’t even consider us a challenge. Medicine is so clearly the creation of men.
”I know exactly what you mean, Rose.”
“I take so many pills now it’s a wonder I don’t rattle. There’s the ones for my dizziness.”
That’s another problem Rose has that they didn’t know how to fix. It’s a problem I used to have that they didn’t know how to fix either. I briefly remember the awful sensation of being at the middle of a giant turntable, looking at the computer screen and being unable to work out why it wasn’t moving the way it felt like it was. Perhaps I should offer her the rest of the tablets in the cupboard in the bathroom.
“I used to take those too.”
“And then there’s the ones for my cholesterol.”
“Yes, I’m on those as well, every night.”
We race through the contents of our medicine cabinets playing snap, me saying a mixture of “Yes, I take those”, “I tried them, they didn’t work” and “You should stay on those as long as you want”. Kelly looks on and smiles because bonding is bonding, even if you’re bonding through adversity. When we have finished comparing repeat prescriptions, I hand the phone back so that Kelly can administer the Love you, bye! that always marks the end of a phone call from Rose.
”What are you smiling at?” I ask her.
“You two. You’re sweet when you talk about your ailments.”
Later that morning, I throw my clothes on head out for my acupuncture appointment, another experimental treatment a specialist suggested to me when he ran out of ideas. Rushing through the leafy streets I pass the Polish church looking splendid in what little sunlight has forced its way through the clouds, if maybe a little too clean and new. The weather is confused; hot and muggy yet not at all bright, as if it hasn’t decided what it wants to be. I can identify with that.
I reach the main road, lined with grand houses. At the top of it, the church and the funeral director sit on opposite sides of the junction, seemingly in cahoots. The sun chooses to come out at this point and ribbons of floaters dance in front of my eyes; they are always there, unless I am looking at something important. Apparently they will eventually go away or I will stop noticing them - failing that I am told there are some experimental methods I might want to consider. I am just about to cross when I am brought to a sudden stop. In front of me an ambulance hurtles past, a dayglo streak, wailing sirens cutting through the thickness in the air. I watch it for a second, on its way to somebody with real problems.