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Open Features: To Win Or Not To Win...

How does one win the top spot on the rostrum in the game of life? Sylvia West tells the stories of three women - and a surprising "winner'' emerges.


I

My friend Pat has lost her hair: this is a side effect of chemotherapy, the first treatment to be given, as a rule, for a diagnosis of cancer. Down at the bus-stop, the kids were speechless, and they stared in disbelief at this proud, bald lady, standing completely unfazed as she waited under the shelter for the bus. Pat is never fazed: as the little row of mouths continued to gape, Pat smiled at them.

“Don’t know what you’re staring at,” she said. “I bet you know a man who’s bald. What’s funny about a woman?”

Now the ball was well and truly in her court, for of course, the kids just didn’t know what to say. Pat is fairly tough, a widow of five years, with a big extended family, and dealing with a mastectomy and months of treatment has been just one more mountain to climb. There was a time when she didn’t much care if she pulled through or not, but she has, and she feels good, so you could say the peak has been scaled and she is on the other side of the mountain now.

The bus was still a few minutes away, so Pat began to explain why she was bald - a good move, as she had the advantage. She told them straight off that she had had cancer.
“Look,” she said, “I’ve lost my eyelashes as well. How do you think that feels?” One of the kids asked how she stopped things falling into her eyes, and then another plucked up courage to ask if it would all grow again, and before you could say ‘what about a wig?’, they were all a lot more knowledgeable than they had been. When the bus rounded the corner, they let Pat climb aboard first, even though she had been at the end of the queue. What a compliment!

I should say that usually a debonair twist of a scarf hides her baldness, but on the day in question it had been forgotten. I told her right at the beginning what a good skull she had, an odd thing to say, but it’s not often that an adult skull is revealed in its original pristine shape.

“You must have been a beautiful baby,” I said.. “That’s one of the best heads I’ve seen in a long time.”

The weeks have passed, the chemotherapy and radiotherapy have finished, and a shining thatch of silver grey is now keeping Pat’s head warm. It’s really much better than it used to be. Older women either have a rather masculine haircut or a perm from time to time, or choose some other way of managing what is supposed to be a woman’s crowning glory. At the moment, Pat’s new cap of silver is pretty and funky - a word usually kept for the young and trendy - and I hope that she decides to let it stay that way. The kids at the bus-stop are amazed and approving, and they tell their mates who happen to be catching a bus that day. Pat has become both friend and teacher, someone to be admired: not because she was bald a short time ago and is now obviously not. It must be because she has treated the whole episode with a sense of humour, and with a complete indifference to what anyone else might think.

“Hello,” says Pat.

“Hello, Mrs Marshall,” say the kids. Then, “It’s grown a lot, hasn’t it? It’s a lot longer than last week.”

And they peer and crane their necks, and Pat bends her shoulders a little so that the healthy new crop can be admired and even touched. A little stroke proves just how soft and silky it feels, and Pat doesn’t mind at all. And the kids? Perhaps when they get off the bus and walk into town, the words ’Cancer Research’ over the charity shop will strike a chord somewhere.


II


She had the most beautiful, brilliant smile: real, intelligent, straight from the eyes. She was ninety years old.

She showed me a photograph taken with her husband just before he died. They were standing together at a fork in the road, somewhere in Wales. Red trousers for her, a red silk cravat for him - a poised and handsome couple, well into their mature years and yes, they were smiling then for whoever was taking the picture. But hers was best, the most scintillating, mesmerising, quite irresistible smile: it has not been dimmed by the passing of the years.

“I was very spoilt,” she said. And she smiled again.

What is the appropriate reply to a woman who, in the end, has nothing else to boast about?

I met Peggy a few weeks ago on a brief coach trip - a five-day holiday to somewhere new and peaceful, to enjoy a change of scenery. We sat at the same table for breakfast and dinner, and wandered into each other from time to time as she looked for a lunchtime sandwich or collapsed onto a bench to rest for a minute. She was an only child. Her husband had been an only child, and they had had no children. He had been someone important in the shipping line, so a pampered life on and off shore had been the norm for her. She had been everywhere, met everyone, and seen a great number of wonderful things.

“I have been so spoilt,” she would say, not in any superior way, but with a voice of real gratitude, an understanding of how lucky she had been.

I wonder. I could talk of my three children, my grandchildren, my sister. She had only a distant cousin with an unsympathetic wife, and I could certainly not claim to have ever been spoilt. Yet surely, I was richer by far, with all the people I had to love. She had no-one, now that her husband was no longer there.

I asked her one day, as we were talking by the sea wall. It seemed a suitable moment.

“How long have you been on your own?”

I thought it would be a matter of months, no more than a year.

“It’s been twenty-four years,” she said, and she looked away to the horizon, where the blue of the sky met the green of the sea. The clouds were hiding the sun that day.

Twenty-four years. Almost a quarter of a century. What a long and lonely time: no child, no sibling, your friends are old and you never go to a funeral. Another trip, perhaps, a summer cruise, the last one was good, you couldn’t fault a thing. Oh, you’ve booked another one? Why not, it’s a way of passing the time. Then perhaps … let’s wait until you return. Can you play this charade just one more time?

“Tell me again, what was it you said?”

And the wind blew away those empty words - “I was spoilt. I was spoilt, - was spoilt, spoilt, spoilt …..

Silence can be so deafening.

III

Well, that’s it then. You win the lottery, you stop working, and you don’t know what to do with the money. Buy this, buy that, throw it away and start again; buy that, buy this, and the tropical fish still keep on dying. The dog is getting fatter by the day, and you’ve lost interest in the cats. Fill the garden, plant some more, oh yes, move house first and fill it, fill it, fill it with things till it overflows.

Most important of all - stop work. Cut off your friends, say “I can’t be asked” to every single thing: stop living a normal, busy, earn-some-money life, because you don’t need to.
Start the sloping, downward path to self-destruction and watch it getting steeper by the day. One day you will reach the bottom and find that there is no way back up again.

Linda has been sectioned now for six months: the clutter and the dust between the window and the curtains thickens each day and her husband comes and goes as he always did. He took a more sensible view of what to do with his million. He invested most of it and bought his own lake, so I sometimes get a fresh trout for supper.

Not Linda. After the first heady spend, spend, spend, she made the decision to do nothing. No new clothes, no trips to the shops with a friend. And the entreaties of family and friends made no difference whatsoever.

Linda was on the path to self-destruction. Of course, she had a mental breakdown - who wouldn’t, in that situation? Advice, help, medication, support: nothing was acceptable. It was everybody’s fault, but not hers.

They took her away a month ago. Or was it two, or more? The police cars don’t scream up any more, the kind, patient ambulance men don’t come any more, two or three times a week, to hammer on the door. They’ll watch her closely now, you can be sure. No more overdoses, no more razor blades on the wrist, no more fear of being poisoned. Who’s going to poison you, Linda, nobody comes to see you any more! You’ve told them to stay away. Your poor husband has done his best, so what is it that you fear?

It must be a dreadful, frightening thing, to suffer from depression: the black dog stays upon your shoulders and nothing can unseat him. I doubt if Linda will return. I cannot imagine what the conclusion will be; the dust and the clutter, the leaves against the door, the quiet, biddable dog that once belonged to her - they are part of the fabric now, the cobwebs in the window, the mask the husband wears as he pulls upon the reins. Everything has changed, nothing is the same.

Apart from the million, of course. That is still as safe as houses.

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