The Adolescents

A short story about a couple navigating life in their forties.

When the nurse removes your bandages, she asks if you’re planning on doing anything with them, sorting them out, making them more presentable.

She doesn’t say: you look like a burns victim, like you’ve been attacked by a bulldog, like you’ve been struck by lightning, reassembled, like a lunar crater, the surface of the moon.

In truth you would have liked massive tits. A monument to human triumph, like those teetering cairns that hill walkers build. But you are sick of people doing things to your body, you tell her. You don’t want it to be an object to be carved up and prodded.

They give you inserts to put in your bra. They feel like an exotic form of sea life dredged up from the bottom of the ocean, squidgy and gelatinous. Neil complains when he finds them around the house. ‘It’s like your boobs are alive, Mum,’ he says, and after a while you stop using them. You make a pact with yourself to practice self-love, like the women you see on Instagram, grinning under vibrant headscarves, looking on the bright side, doing the work.

Back at the house you fall into a quiet rhythm. You sleep in until 12, while Craig goes to his study and works.

He is researching genealogy. He has discovered his dad’s side are related to Henry VIII and his ambition is to do the whole family tree.

Occasionally you will pop your head round the door of the office to show off a new top you’ve got, one that complements your new more muted colouring or cleverly disguises the crater where your tits used to be.

‘That’s nice,’ he’ll say and you have to believe that he means it. He slept in your bed at the hospital, surviving on Yop and Subway sandwiches. He pretended not to notice when your eyebrows fell out. He always asks if you need anything from the shop. If that’s not love, what is?

The first time you slept together since the operation he didn’t touch your scars or even look at them. ‘I don’t want to make you feel self-conscious about them,’ he said. He is a good man.

Sometimes you get dressed, go into town. Getting dressed provides an awkward reminder of your new body. The shirts that hang flat. The bras that lie skew-whiff over your chest like a pirate’s eye patch. From the eruptions of puberty to the swell of pregnancy to the indignity of ageing to this.

You look in the mirror with a stranger’s eye trying to work out how you fit together. You’re not old yet. Your pubic hair is flecked with grey like the beard of a distinguished actor. Still: your silhouette is no longer an invitation. You have the kind of body that now requires explanation. You could no longer take anyone’s breath away by dropping a coat.

People’s eyes linger on you. In the swimming pool changing room, a small girl stares like she’s seen the face of death pressed up against the window and in a way, she has. In the queue for Greggs a woman with a pushchair grips your hand and tells you to keep going. ‘You’re so lucky to be here,’ she whispers hotly. ‘Not everyone makes it.’ You pat her on the shoulder and absorb her sobs with your jacket while your sausage roll goes cold in your hand.

You turn off the TV when a bald woman appears on a breakfast show pleading with viewers to raise their awareness. Her presumption appals you as much as the blue vein wiggling across her forehead. How much more raised can your awareness get?

Making tea in the night you think you hear the low muted scream of a climax through headphones. But it’s okay. You can hardly blame him.

The silence of the house is bliss after the clamour of the hospital. The whirring of machinery. The long glottal groans of the helpless. Here among the detritus of your life you can slowly reacclimatise to the minor indignities and sharp stabbing joy of being alive. You think of it as a job. You become quite good at it.

Occasionally Neil pokes his head in the door and asks if you need anything and looks grateful when you say no. You know any reminder of your weakness upsets him. That he needs you to be a permanent fixture like God and pylons and oak trees. This, above all, is the reason that you lived.

You watch through the kitchen window as he breaks up with his girlfriend on the wall outside, trying not to let them see you. It’s for the best, he’ll say. This way they’ll both be free to see other people. And if they’re still single when they finish university then maybe they can get back together? Come on, Lizzie, don’t cry.

Meanwhile, you slowly develop a crush on a man who values antiques on TV. He’s got large capable hands, an understated manner and a slight goofiness that is endearing.

Soon you find yourself thinking about him when you’re going round the supermarket, imagining the two of you filling a shopping basket, what tea he’d buy, who his type would be, would he be faithful? Or is he one of those quiet ones who seems like he would, but wouldn’t?

You take to staying up late. It’s an act of rebellion. You didn’t have the time before, and now you do. You’re determined to eke out every last second from each evening, staying up until the only sounds are tinnitus and squalling foxes.

You google everything under the sun.

Best online shop for padded bras.

Henry Cavill + personal life + Wikipedia.

Does my husband still love me?

That’s when you come across him, sloshing through your derelict Facebook account, crammed with photos of forgotten colleagues and the weddings of second cousins twice removed.

There are pictures. Him cradling a baby girl. Him grinning in sun-dazzled joy at a Center Parcs. Him at a stag night with his arm round his friends’ necks in a novelty hat. You are prepared to feel the sharp shock of his ageing but what you hadn’t expected to feel was the tenderness. The pull of this human being whose hand you once held, whose mouth you once kissed, who once compared your face implausibly to that of a beautiful film star, who’d looked so sad when you told him he was a lovely person but this thing, this whole thing that he wanted, it just couldn’t be done.

You look at the photo of him on the stag night. He looks broader with grey hairs in his stubble but there is still that reassuring sturdiness and the slight shyness that undercuts it.

‘What harm can it do?’ you think, pressing like.

The next day, you go for a check-up. The consultant examines the blown-out crater of your breasts with breezy self-assurance. ‘Healing well,’ he says, ‘Soon you’ll be able to wear a bikini.’

You don’t know where he thinks you’re going to wear a bikini to, given it’s autumn in the south of England, not summer in The Bahamas, but you like the thought of him picturing you swanning around a swimming pool, oiled up, casually ordering margaritas, then you wonder if he knew you’d like it and suddenly you don’t.

When you get home Craig is out. He doesn’t say where he’s gone. Perhaps on another one of the long bike rides to the library. You don’t mind. It’s bad for couples to be joined at the hip.

You unlock your phone. A message pops up. ‘Is that you?’

You send him a brief update on where things stand. The whys and wherefores and hows. It would be rude not to do this. He’d taken the trouble to write, after all. He says he’s very sorry to hear about the cancer (he says the word, which you like). His mum had it. She’s got one tit now. She calls it ‘Beyoncé’ because it’s gone solo. You laugh.

You feel a little jolt when you get the messages. A tickle of anticipation. You tell yourself that by noticing this you are being very self-aware. You decide that this means it’s okay to carry on.

‘You look happy mum’, says Neil as you go out for one last meal as a family before the big farewell. ‘Do I?’ you say, squeezing Craig’s hand. ‘That must be because your dad’s paying.’

It isn’t.

There’s no point detailing the exact train of events by which you eventually agree to meet up or why you don’t mention their existence. It’s not that you deliberately mislead him. It just never comes up.

When he walks into the Wetherspoons, he looks handsome and broken, like a sad bear. You suppose you look the same, but then wonder if that’s even possible for a woman. Are you an ageing apex predator or a withering flower? Then you tell yourself off for thinking this. You know it is one of the forbidden thoughts. The smiling women on Instagram, with their tight grimaces of hard-won self-love, wouldn’t approve.

He buys you a drink and you check off all the clichés:

– It feels like no time has passed.

– Just the one, because you can’t handle the drink anymore.

– You look just the same as you always did.

Later, he runs his hands over the place where your tits used to be, commiserating that he never got to say goodbye to them.

Later still, he breathes, ‘I love this’ and the unspoken ‘you’ hangs in the air between you, intended for someone else, perhaps, his ex-wife, a younger you, the vague outline of a perfect woman, not you surely.

Afterwards, he dances around in a dressing gown making you a post-coital snack, the way men do when they’re smitten, delighted to be showing his softness at last.

You ask yourself questions like:

What would Neil and Craig be doing now if you hadn’t made it? Would Neil have postponed university or would he have thrown himself into it? Would the grief have driven him on to become a big success? Would Craig go into mourning or would he be making plans to marry that stupid bitch from the genealogy group?

And why are men at their most loveable when they’re unsure of you?

A gloom comes over the bedroom as happens when the sun goes down behind curtains that have been closed for too long.

‘I’ve thought about you a lot,’ he says, squeezing your hand.

‘Me too,’ you say, not being entirely truthful.

‘You will come back?’ he asks, and all of a sudden you remember why you dumped him.

‘Yes’, you lie.

You wonder how God would calculate it in his cosmic ledger.

Brush with death – +10

Lying to a man you used to love: -?

Surely the first must outweigh the latter? Yes, you are sure of it.

As soon as you get round the corner you pull into a layby and block his account.

Back home, Neil’s bedroom is empty. All his old stuff is piled up in boxes in a pyramid in the corner and all his new stuff sits in bags by the door.

You find him in the kitchen, catch him in your arms like a squirming puppy and tell him you’ll miss him. He laughs and wiggles away but then comes back and kisses you on the cheek. ‘I love you, mum.’

The next morning, you and Craig stand by the door, watching his granddad load his belongings into the car.

‘Goodbye’ you say, the irresistible sob rising in your throat, the little kaleidoscope of images. ‘Promise me you’ll have lots of fun.’

As the car groans away, you turn to Craig. He folds you in his arms. It’s a warm clenched hug, the kind he’d give you when he’d still do silly things like try and pick you up.

‘I love you’, he says.

You take a breath.

‘I love you too’, you say.

Later he touches them for the first time in ages and says they feel like candlewax: hard, shiny and brilliant, then falls slowly asleep with his head in the dent.


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